James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS: The Story River Peer Review

Two years ago I began a journey with Pat Conroy’s fiction imprint at the University of South Carolina, Story River Books, that led to both wonder and disappointment. In receiving peer review that’s on the whole positive, the manuscript still did not manage to fully connect. Publishing is a tough business, a heartbreaking one. During the whole process MoHG’s progress sounded good… until it didn’t.

And while this only constitutes a single rejection — “MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS is beyond the scope of Story River,” as I was ultimately informed — I had so much riding on this one that the failure felt for a brief time like a basket full of my precious eggs shattering. So much for the seeming miracle of all-but connecting with one of my adolescent writing influences at my collegiate alma mater, as well as provide a springboard from which to launch DIXIANA.

One must remember that failure always offers an opportunity, however, and perhaps being released from this situation will turn out to be the best outcome for this very personal work.

About the manuscript itself, MoHG is designed to operate on several levels, including that of both Conroy-esque Southern family drama as well as deep allegory. None of the reviews quite got it on that level, but that’s okay. They grasped the story and enjoyed the characters. That’s the most important part.

First, the logline:

Wisecracking end-stage alcoholic Devin Rucker, haunted by any number of past betrayals, returns home to settle a mysterious score with his college friend, Billy Steeple. The piece that Devin’s missing is that his handsome, foppish co-protagonist is also an oddly oblivious murderer: ‘accidents’ often occur with women, including, once, with Devin’s dead girlfriend Libby. Worse, an accident’s about to occur again, but this time with Devin’s sister… unless our man sobers up in time to stop Billy once and for all.

The first review came to me personally from one of the unofficial reviewers Conroy uses. Her praise, which went well beyond what I include here, was uniformly effusive.

MoHG Reader Review #1:

“[MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS] is like nothing I’ve ever read before… AT ALL. A good thing, in my mind… it is certainly draining and wrenching, also intriguing, funny, moving.

“…I was so moved by the ending. Thank you for giving those characters a graceful sendoff. Devin is a wonderful, wonderful character… your characters at times reminded me of Flannery O’Connor…

“I am probably a complete freak, but I actually found Billy somewhat sympathetic. Is that just wrong…? He’s one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever encountered in a book.

“The novel is quite powerful, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s very daring, I think, in both style and scope, and so full of heart. Whatever happens, it’s a magnificent piece of work that you should be proud of.”

The following are compressed versions of the two official peer reviews.

MoHG Anonymous Reader Review #2:

“Without question, this novel is one of the strangest, quirkiest (in the best sense), and entertaining works I have read in a long, long time. I’ll admit that I was a bit slow to warm to the book, the fault (I believe) of the sometimes fragmentary nature of the prose in the Devin sections. Over time, however, I began to appreciate prose that somehow seems both brutally concise and expansive. So there was a period of adjustment I suspect some readers might not be willing to make. But that would be their loss, and a tremendous loss at that. Within 40 pages I was hooked. By the time Billy’s shizzle [was] now fazizzled I was flipping pages as fast as possible, knowing I was in a generous and wonderfully imagined world that at times put me in mind of John Irving and at others of John Kennedy O’Toole.

“As stated above, the novel is nothing if not original. It’s also very smart, rendering perfectly “the south” while never tripping into the territory of the overly southern fried. The importance of conveying the complexity and nuances of the south while never giving in to easy clichés and stereotypes cannot be stressed enough (note the juxtaposition around page 324 of a classic bar scene with a scene at the Beanery). That this novel “gets the south right,” while managing to be intelligent and funny is a tremendous accomplishment. I thought of Confederacy of Dunces and The World According to Garp.

“I fell in love with Billy from his first appearance. Something about the neediness of his ambition coupled with such a limited vision is potent. Creedence is also wonderful. Devin is harder to like, but that doesn’t make him any less complex or well realized.

“The organization is fairly straight forward. Style is everything. The book hangs on the reader’s willingness to give herself over to the voice. As I said before, it took a while for that voice to get its hooks in me, and I suspect some readers might fall away in the first fifty pages. But the style succeeds. I recommend publication. I fell in love with this book and found it to be what serious fiction so often isn’t: a whole lot of fun.

MoHG Anonymous Reader Review #3:

“The novel’s focus and perspective is fairly original: exploring the universal theme of characters traumatized by the past through the experiences of a severe alcoholic and a psychotic narcissist. And literature is not overrun with stories about childhood friends from South Carolina and the Grateful Dead. The novel’s manic energy reminded me of “Confederacy of Dunces.” More strongly it reminded me of one of Lydia Millet’s early novels, “Everyone Is Pretty” which used locker room language to tell the story of an aimless, messed up guy who reviews pornographic films.

“The novel seems infected by the same disease as its characters – it keeps running in place. They are stuck in the past, unable (until the end) to overcome past trauma. Libby’s death has deposited them in an endless loop of self-destruction.

“To some extent the problems stem from the fact that the author creates over-the-top characters. Devin is not just an aimless, pained alcoholic, for half the book he seems to be suffering from severe mental illness – he honestly believes Libby is alive and living with Dobbs. Then, this deep delusion, which he has conjured as a coping mechanism, just goes away when he returns home. [NOTE: Um, yes — after Devin sobers up! That last part of the book isn’t called ‘The Pretenders’ for nothing.]

“I was not convinced that someone who had constructed his own reality for so long could have released it so easily – he had created it for psychological reasons that didn’t suddenly vanish. The author is creating a character with a very complicated problem that he is unable to portray or resolve in a convincing manner. [NOTE: I’m not sure this otherwise astute reader and fellow novelist has much experience with alcohol recovery, PTSD, etc, but certainly Devin’s re-birth upon his return home is SUPPOSED to seem somewhat inexplicable — eh, I tried.]

“Billy is even more out there, but his insanity is more convincing because it only gets worse. Billy’s ending was satisfying (and extremely well done). It couldn’t end any other way for him. But Devin’s and Chelsea’s were too pat. I’m glad Chelsea ended up with Roy Earl but their union seemed like it was required more by the story than their lives. The novel would be much stronger after a round of author revisions aimed at tightening the story, compressing the time frame and – easier said than done – adding a few more surprises, twists and insights.

The novel accomplishes what it sets out to do – it presents us with a set of characters for whom the past is not even past and follows each of them to a point of resolution.

So . . . there’s a glimpse at the official (and unofficial) peer review on MoHG. What becomes of this novel from here, I have no clue. Perhaps I’ll take some time and see if I can improve and shorten the book, but without undermining its obvious strengths. Perhaps a more daring publisher awaits? Time will tell.

And, if you’ve read this far, how about taking a peek at the first chapter?


About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

10 Replies

  1. How many writers get a book accepted on a first submission (unless they’re famous) keep submitting; it will happen.

    1. Oh, I agree, Al, but this was far from a first submission on this one. Felt kinda perfect on all sorts of levels, from my personal history reading and admiring Conroy to how this all came together. I sacrificed much to make this happen, including my business relationship with my agent. A little mysterious how it all managed to fall apart. But I soldier on. I appreciate all your support! I was surprised that we were the only two local writers who showed up to support James McTeer last week.

  2. thorshammer12

    “Failure often offers………”? WTF! There is very little that we endeavor to accomplish that must be counted as failure. Using James Lee Burke as a template with his first published novel, “The Lost Get-back Boogie” and keeping in mind that it suffered 100+ rejections before eventually being awarded a Pulitzer.

    There is a huge difference between hubris and confidence, my son. The talent is within you as is the determination so soldier on. You have the tools for success within you.

    We spend way too much time taking things apart trying to understand why they work the way they do instead of simply accepting the fact that they do.

    I hope things are as well as can be expected in your world. Please understand that I don’t pray for your success because I don’t want to queer whatever deal you got goin’ on. This HCV medicine has some annoying and uncomfortable side-effects but nothing I can’t deal with.

    Keep on keepin’ on….,


    1. I hear ya. Thank you for your support and encouragement. Certainly the text of the novel itself is far from a failure, only a bump in the road in terms of connecting with Mr. Conroy’s press. Much good stuff to come!

Leave a Reply