"The Wagner Trouble" by Julie Nováková (12,337 words)
This story takes on the supernatural coming to call at a very important opera house’s grand opening, where a young exorcist has his hands more than full when the play’s composer, Richard Wagner, pays a visit of the undead variety. The piece does a great job building up this world of ghosts that flit among the living, and showing why they might be more attracted to, well, more attractive locations. Places full of crowds and art. Places that echo with passion and with praise. The story’s protagonist is Gustav Meyer, a man presumed too young to be an exorcist, and yet one who has studied widely following a brush with death some time ago. The only reason he’s given the position, which is an important one and comes with a share of respect and responsibility, is that there is literally no one else to fill the spot on short notice. He brings a measure of reserved enthusiasm to the piece, a curiosity and a rigor that mark his as serious but not without interest or quirks. And the aesthetic of the piece mixes stage magic with religious iconography and music and what comes out of all that is fun and tightly paced with a touch of darkness but also a thirst for life.
The story does a rather careful job of revealing the characters. In some ways it makes a commentary on memory and how people appear after their death. The Wagner here is not the real Wagner, the story says in no uncertain terms, just the shadow of him. The echo. It’s basically the historical record of him, the three or four attributes he’s best known for. And I like how this works into viewing ghosts like memories, that they are defined by what made them obvious but all of their subtlety, all of their nuance, is wiped clean. Still, the question of Wagner and his personal beliefs, his antisemitism, are addressed here while not making it the sole of his character. The story works hard to make the ghost complex enough that it’s not just a villain, a bundle of contradictions, as all people are when they are remembered. And Meyer acts as a good foil to the raw emotion and rage of Wagner, as Meyer remains cool under pressure and downright unflappable.
I also like the way the story brings in tarot and other kinds of magic. There’s always the risk with these sorts of things, especially in a historical or quasi-historical setting, to make the beliefs of other cultures into magic instead of societal artifacts, but I think the story treats the various elements it lifts from religious and magical traditions with respect. Meyer is not out to dominate or destroy with his powers. Indeed, he cares about the ghosts to some extent, not wanting to do them violence while balancing that against the well-being and safety of the living. It’s not an easy thing to juggle but he manages well and the story moves with a nice sense of urgency and tension. Meyer is stuck waiting and reacting, always a difficult place to be in, and I like how he uses his wits and skills. It’s a fun story, one that doesn’t try to dig too deep into the implications of a lot of the world building it does, but nothing seems out of place or lacking. It’s a story about a haunting at an opera house, with some nice twists and a satisfying ending. Which I would call a successful and thoroughly enjoyable experience!