Described as a thriller, Ghost Eater is more of an adventure story with history and the supernatural woven into the many threads of its plot. If Joseph Conrad had collaborated with fantasy writer George MacDonald, the story they created might have been similar to this. An old sea captain at the turn of the twentieth century has a mysterious visitor who gives him a bottle of wine, the taste of which brings back a thirty-year-old adventure that took place on his first command. The tale of his enigmatic errand to rescue missionaries in Sumatra then unfolds, a story with more complexities and revelations, reversals and advances, than a month-long role-playing game.
Yet the reader is brought along by the rich and evocative descriptions of the landscape and by the character of the sea captain, Ulysses Vanders, whose true nature is revealed to himself as well as to the reader as the plot progresses. Vivid descriptions of life aboard and on shore alternate with desperate ventures and adventures. As in MacDonald’s fantasies there is supernatural direction and misdirection, and the captain’s problem of determining good from evil, supporter from enemy, has philosophical resonances. The women are symbolic, unreal, and sometimes in fact ghosts. They wield mysterious powers and lure the men in right and wrong directions, as in H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895).
While this novel requires a pretty forceful willing suspension of disbelief, the work remains challenging and enigmatic underneath the exciting, almost frenetically active surface.