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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Ghostly Stories That Stretch the Genre : WOMEN AND GHOSTS by Alison Lurie ; Doubleday $21, 192 pages

October 28, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't expect visions in tattered rags drifting down ancestral halls or beckoning across wind-swept moors. Alison Lurie's ghosts are thoroughly contemporary, and a few of them violate tradition by not even being dead.

One of the most diverting stories centers upon a ghost that was never precisely alive--an antique chest of drawers--a highboy--inherited by a brother but deeply coveted by his sister. They trade legacies, and at first the highboy seems perfectly content in its new location, continually waxed and polished by its owner, who is appropriately named Buffy. It's a demanding piece of furniture, though, and despite Buffy's loving care, within a short time the chest begins to cause problems, minor at first, like sticking drawers and wobbling, but eventually major: slamming itself on people's fingers and scratching the leg of a tot who plays under it.

This piece of furniture is a rarity, an expert says within hearing of the highboy; it really belongs in a museum. From that moment on, there's no living with it. It becomes so openly rebellious that its mistress at one point threatens it with deportation to a modern house full of boisterous children. Eventually the highboy winds up showcased behind a velvet rope, but not before it has wreaked havoc on poor Buffy.

"In the Shadow" introduces the winsome Celia, a young woman who works at the American Embassy in London. Her most determined suitor is entirely appropriate in every respect, except one. His name is Dwayne Mudd and, despite his impeccable lineage and brilliant future, Celia finds herself unable to face the prospect of becoming Mrs. Mudd. She breaks their engagement. Heartbroken, Dwayne drinks too much at an embassy party and is killed driving home. From that moment on, whenever Celia and a new beau approach intimacy, Dwayne appears to make nasty and uncharacteristically lewd comments. Distracted, disturbed and hoping to escape Dwayne, Celia requests a transfer to a small but pleasant African country. She's hardly settled in before Dwayne surfaces, determined to quash her new romantic interest. Desperate, Celia confides in her African dressmaker, who turns out to be just as gifted at exorcism as she is at duplicating Dior. Celia pays a hefty price for this service, but under the circumstances, it seems most reasonable.

"Waiting for the Baby" takes place in New Delhi, where an American couple has gone to adopt a child. The procedure is agonizingly slow and frustrating, culminating in their being turned down because they're too old. This is an essentially ghostless story, its ironic core the juxtaposition of the childless Americans against the teeming Indian background. Like "In the Shadow," it has a conventionally happy ending, but not before the characters have confronted some home truths about themselves.

"Counting Sheep" takes us back to the English Lake country, a setting Lurie used to great effect in her novel "Foreign Affairs." Here, a concerned faculty member watches helplessly as one of her students literally loses himself in his research. Told repeatedly that there's no chance of a permanent job after his year at Grassmere ends, the student refuses to even consider applying for work elsewhere. Somehow, he'll manage to stay, and somehow, he does. The means he chooses qualify the story for the collection, provided you're willing to stretch your definition of ghost beyond the usual limits.

"The Double Poet" is the most cerebral of the tales and the least supernatural. Caro McKay is a performer who reads her poetry to large and appreciative audiences all over the country. Quite by chance, she discovers that a woman who resembles her has been impersonating her, signing books and giving interviews to the press, banal platitudes that not only misrepresent McKay's work but vulgarize it. In her attempts to cope with the problem, McKay not only comments astutely on the nature of art and of fame, but confronts realities she had unconsciously avoided. In this strong and original story, Lurie resists the temptation of a merry ending, leaving the reader to ponder the intimate and often dangerous connection between artist and the public.

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