The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese


Published by The Overlook Press

3 stars



Boston, 1870. Photographer Edward Moody runs a booming business capturing the images of the spirits of the departed in his portraits. He lures grieving widows and mourning mothers into his studio with promises of catching the ghosts of their deceased loved ones with his camera. Despite the whispers around town that Moody is a fraud of the basest kind, no one has been able to expose him, and word of his gift has spread, earning him money, fame, and a growing list of illustrious clients.

One day, while developing the negative from a sitting to capture the spirit of the young son of an abolitionist senator, Moody is shocked to see a different spectral figure develop before his eyes. Instead of the staged image of the boy he was expecting, the camera has seemingly captured the spirit of a beautiful young woman. Is it possible that the spirit photographer caught a real ghost? When Moody recognizes the woman in the photograph as the daughter of an escaped slave he knew long ago, he is compelled to travel from Boston to the Louisiana bayous to resolve their unfinished business—and perhaps save his soul. But more than one person is out to stop him . . .

With dramatic twists and redolent of the mood of the Southern Gothic, The Spirit Photographer conjures the Reconstruction era South, replete with fugitive hunters, voodoo healers, and other dangers lurking in the swamp. Jon Michael Varese’s deftly plotted first novel is an intense tale of death and betrayal that will thrill readers as they unravel the dreadful mystery behind the spirit in the photograph and what ultimately became of her.

Publication date: 3rd May 2018

The immediate appeal of this book to me was the Southern Gothic feel and the idea of spirit photography. Spiritualism always seems to have its rise during times of war but the idea of it being mixed in with the rise of new forms of technology is really interesting to me.
The plot itself is a mystery, the spirit of a missing woman appears in a photo of a Senator and his wife but Moody, the photographer, also knew this woman and must figure out how she connects all of them together.

This is quite a fast paced novel and covers a lot of ground, including a lot of the politics about the abolition of slavery. In all honesty, I wasn’t a fan of that part of the novel as the only in-depth views came from the white characters. Apart from lacking the balance I’d like, it also felt lacking in the emotion needed to really describe the far-reaching evil of it all.
Hand in hand with this is that every time a white man forces himself on a black woman in this book (and it is force when the woman says no), it doesn’t seem to come across as anything more than ‘a bit naughty’. No thanks.
Without a clear final judgement of ‘all these men are terrible people’, it’s a story that just leaves me sad and a bit peeved.

What I did enjoy was the big question mark over spirit photography and the psychology and ethics of it all, as well as the well-researched feel of the novel. When the characters end up taking a jaunt to New Orleans, you feel yourself go there with them and take in the atmosphere of the city as it would have been back then.
Overall, the book lacked the emotion I needed to really make it stand out but the mystery itself is compelling.


*Thank you NetGalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review*

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