Jack Cady’s Rules of ’48–ghosts of the past

Jack Cady died after a battle with cancer six years ago. His talents in science fiction, fantasy and horror were recognized in his lifetime with a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection for The Sons of Noah: And Other Stories in 1993; a Nebula and a Bram Stoker for Best Novella for “The Night We Buried Road Dog” in 1994; a Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Inagehi in 1994; and numerous nominations for various awards in the field.

The titles of books like The  Jonah Watch: A True-Life Ghost Story in the Form of a Novel, McDowell’s Ghost, The Hauntings of Hood Canal, Ghostland and Ghosts of Yesterday suggest Cady’s fascination with ghosts. Yet, as I wrote in a 2001 review which likened The Hauntings of Hood Canal to Cannery Row (with just a few supernatural beings lurking off the docks), “(Cady), like John Steinbeck, is an accomplished storyteller. His works resonate with the passions and foibles of ordinary people, and he makes his readers care for them. Like most great tales of the supernatural, The Hauntings of Hood Canal is actually about human nature and some wonderfully contrived characters. The ghosts are integral, but secondary.”

Rules of ’48, which is likely Cady’s final book, was originally intended as an autobiography, but as the author reveals in his “A Note to My Reader,”

This book began as a memoir, but from page one, characters stood up and demanded attention I couldn’t make happen in a memoir. They whispered in my ear through my dreams, and they argued with each other, or fussed. They didn’t seem to ask for much: a display of seven weeks in 1948 when their worlds altered forever. It turns out they asked a lot.

It became necessary to change characters’ names while writing a novel…

Like many of Cady’s works, Rules of ’48 is a ghost story. In a small section of Louisville in 1948, at least six people die in as many weeks, and their spirits haunt the neighborhood in an unobtrusive way. They don’t actively interfere with the living, but their presence is never far from the mundane post-War existence that is undergoing change faster than it ever has before.

Cady carefully balances these six deaths against the 600,000 Jews who were exterminated in the camps and the millions who died in the two World Wars and the Great Depression.

The story takes place around an auction house that stands on the border between the white and black sections of the city. The five main characters are Wade, the white auctioneer; his son Jim (who represents the author); Lucky, the Jewish pawnbroker; his black teenaged helper, Howard; and Lester, the black man who works as a grip for the auction. During the seven weeks of the narrative each of these men matures, and each death acts as a catalyst, affecting how he sees himself and the world.

The auction business is to Rules of ’48 as whaling was to Moby Dick. We learn a lot about auctions and auctioneering, maybe more than we want to know, but in the end, it all makes sense as a metaphor for the value and transience of life.

Rules of ’48 is history as history should be taught. Readers will learn about war, poverty, prosperity, racism, Communism, and life as it is and as it should be lived. Yet there is never the impression of a textbook or an overbearing lesson. Instead, it is a fast-paced story in which the ghosts of the past come alive.

Perhaps comparing Jack Cady to Steinbeck and Melville is overdoing it a little, but, then again, maybe not.

Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.