If anything it’s surprising that more authors don’t use the tools and tropes of horror in “literary fiction,” given how effective the genre can be as social commentary. Literalizing anxieties as monsters can be heavy-handed in the wrong hands, but in the right ones it can deliver insight beyond the most astute work of realism. Violet Kupersmith has the right hands. In her The Frangipani Hotel, a collection of Vietnamese-themed ghost stories, the most explicit attempts at hair-raising spookiness fall flat, but it does paint a haunting portrait of a country struggling to move beyond a bloody and relentless past.
In “Reception,” the story that gives the book its title, a bellboy is confounded by the sudden presence that manifests itself in an unoccupied room during an American businessman’s stay. The haunted house aspects evolve into a consideration of the lingering effects of imperialism and America’s history in the country, and while this isn’t exactly subtle, it is potent. As effective is “Little Brother,” which is more opaque in its “ghosts of the past” theme but powerfully evokes a mood of dread.
Kupersmith writes with a Carver-esque simplicity, and there are times when the ghost story structure seems to limit her. “Skin and Bones” starts as such an engaging story about sisters visiting their ancestral country that the turn to the supernatural feels forced, especially the ending, which is more goofy than macabre. In all, this is a very promising debut, and it will be interesting to see whether Kupersmith’s follow-up novel expands on her world-creating gifts while still using all the tools at her disposal.