Maxine Lee-Mackie’s The Ghost in the Window is a curious hybrid of children’s book-style storytelling, experimental comics and interactive mystery. It follows the new lives of the Valentine family as they settle into the confines of Gullmuir, a dilapidated old house where the long-out-of-work Tom Valentine has secured a caretaker post. The main focus of the story is Tom’s step-daughter, Doriane, who sees their new residence as the precursor to adventure and intrigue. The third member of this cast of characters is Doriane’s mother Marta who has an unexplained long-term medical condition that has left her unable to communicate.
Gullmuir does not prove to be the doorway to exciting exploits that Doriane was hoping for though. At least not until the day that she draws a ghost in the condensation of a window in the house and it begins obliquely communicating with her. What strange secrets about the local area are waiting to be discovered? Who are the odd elderly twin sisters who live nearby and what role do they have in the proceedings? And is the ghost real or a figment of Doriane’s imagination? As the days go by, unlikely revelations will come to the fore as drama and tragedy converge.
Lee-Mackie weaves a family drama with supernatural leanings that jumps back and forth from pure comics to illustration through to longer text passages. Where The Ghost in the Window is at its best is in her willingness to adopt an often freeform approach to her sequential art. Sometimes she uses traditional panel structures and sometimes she allows elements of the story to almost randomly float across the page in a non-linear fashion, with her use of lettering to reflect the emotional tempo of scenes being a pronounced strength of her storytelling.
The mystery that sits at the heart of the story is a dark and twisting one indeed, but it does feel though like a longer page count would have given Lee-Mackie more time and space to ramp up its tension, throw in more misdirection and keep the readers guessing. As it stands The Ghost in the Window feels like it has barely begun to draw us in before it’s rapidly concluded. In that regard some of the longer expository text passages would, perhaps, have served the story better had they too been illustrated scenes that built up the mystery more slowly. But such is often the nature of the constraints of longer-form self-publishing in terms of the logistics of story structure and possible length.
What is assuredly worth your attention here, though, is Lee-Mackie’s quirky and unpredictable visuals that are so evocative in their use of colour and their playfully eccentric perspective in heightening mood and charging each page with its own, peculiar atmospheric eeriness. In The Ghost in the Window Lee-Mackie is constantly thinking about, and exploring, what comics offer her narrative that no other medium could, and that’s the kind of work we will always gravitate towards here at Broken Frontier.
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Review by Andy Oliver