When I talked with Ashley and Chad about helping out at Lost Boys Press, I had already bought one of the books they published—The Garden of the Golden Children. I let them know that I was excited to read it and was planning to read Ghost River as well. Ashley’s face let me know her reaction to Ghost River, and Chad warned me about it. 

I love horror and scary stories. I am a sucker for dilapidated houses, ghosts, and thrilling suspense. I read Stephen King for the first time when I was twelve. I have definitely read some gory and disturbing stories, but I told myself this would be different. I started Ghost River before bed one night and promptly had a series of disturbing dreams that kept me tossing and turning all night long. Yeah. Ghost River is rough. It is gory, gruesome, exhausting, and disturbing. It is set in the desert in an abandoned town ruled by ancient deities who eat people in an old church. There are scenes in the book that are probably the most graphic I have ever read. It took me a long time to read it, and by the time I finished, I felt like I had escaped from that run-down town inhabited by dead children and pig demons.

But you know what? The gruesome, gory, shocking stuff isn’t what stayed with me after I recovered from reading Ghost River. Despite the incredibly strong worldbuilding and descriptive writing, what lives on for me are the main characters: Esther, Minister, Markus, and Shelby. While they may not be entirely human, each of them are fully fleshed and lovingly developed. Yes, lovingly. It is clear that Chad knew these characters by the end of his stay in Ghost River (I hope he’s not still living there!) and they were truly a family to him. Dysfunctional? You bet! Even if your own flawed family doesn’t kill hitchhikers to feed the desert demons, you’ll still find some similarities between the Northamm family and your own. Here are some special family memories for Minister and Esther and their two children:

What follows contains spoilers. 

The courtship of Minister and Esther

She is held captive in a cage. He is the son of a cult leader possessed by a pig demon. Her destiny is to be the chosen one, a bride for the pig demon. His destiny is to serve the ancient deities who rule over Ghost River. But the first time he sees her, Minister knows he loves Esther. Most families have their lore about how parents met. Stories are passed from generation to generation of the place—the actions, the feelings. It is no different for these two, just starting in the world. They pinky-promise to spend forever with each other. M+E carved in wood for others to find and wonder. Even when Minister dies, strung up on a cross in the abandoned church of Orphan Rock, he returns to the woman he loves. Rotting and demented, their love lives on. First love never leaves us, its memory wrapped in blood and bones, its fire trapped in our brains.  

The birth of baby Shelby

Parents never forget the first time they hold their child. They marvel at tiny hands and comment on how the baby’s nose looks just like Grandma’s. Family and friends gather to coo at the new member of the family. When Esther Northamm delivers her second child, she survives a difficult delivery to find that her baby’s birth is celebrated by her surrogate family—a ragtag group of Broken Kids, pieced together out of old body parts, nuts, bolts, and gardening equipment. They aren’t alive, but the new baby is. She isn’t human, but she is loved, not only by her birth mother, but also by her adoptive mother. Delora, the Crooked Woman, a Sister of Sorrow, claims Baby Bird as her own. She feeds her lovingly with meaty, wormy soil. Esther—a nobody—returns to her home where her son Markus waits for her. She tells him stories about the birth of his baby sister, not a mutant harpy sired by a desert demon, but her own little girl. Shelby. Though the baby will never be hers, Esther, like every other mother, cherishes the memory of her second child’s birth and watches her grow into a half-woman, half-Sorrow Sister from afar.

The return of the prodigal son

Families break up sometimes. Black sheep wander away, lured by false promises or real lies. The parable of the prodigal son reminds us that the child we have lost and returns is one deserving of love and celebration. Markus, little Snake, runs away from Orphan Rock to escape his future. He is surrounded by death in the dirt, until a sly Sister of Sorrow tempts him away. Her name is Desyre and she promises Markus a better life and cures him of his dirt curse. But, leaving home isn’t always what you expect. Money and fame don’t replace family. Markus returns to his home, the abandoned town in Ghost River. Esther vows she will never lose him again, clutching him in her arms. Minster, buried in the dirt, a sliver of his living self, recognizes his son, his last hope for deliverance. He will never forget the last act he makes to save Markus and doom himself forever. 

Horror? Yep! Death, decay, and debauchery? Absolutely! But family still prevails in Chad Ryan’s Ghost River. Love and hope, sacrifice and suffering for the good of those we cherish—these themes prevail. I would argue that the Northamm family is an example of the best of families in the worst of circumstances. See if you agree. Check out Chad’s book in Lost Boys Press bookstore and find the family despite the fright in Ghost River.

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