Airforce One is Haunted, Robert Serling

St. Martin’s, 1985, 332 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-90029-5

One of the pleasures of being a free-range reviewer (Wild! Untamed! Answerable to no one!) is that I can have the luxury to look at older oddball books. I have no stack of advance copies, no editor asking for reviews in a certain format, no corporate interests to defend. So when such a bizarre book as Robert Serling’s Airforce One is Haunted makes its way to me, it’s hard to resist the temptation to give it a fair shake and see what falls out.

Keep in mind that there is an interesting context surrounding this book and this author. You can note, for instance, that Robert Serling was a prolific aviation writer. Born in 1918, he was also the brother of “the” Rod Serling best known as the writer behind the original “Twilight Zone”. He achieved some notoriety with the novel The President’s Plane is Missing, which was later filmed for TV. His last novel was Something’s Alive on the Titanic (1990), third in a trilogy of rather obvious titles.

[April 2006: The web proved surprisingly useless in verifying Serling’s more recent whereabouts, but an anonymous correspondent wrote in to correct my initial impression and say “Author Robert J. Serling is alive and well and currently resides in Arizona.” Thanks!]

A direct sequel to The President’s Place is Missing (which I haven’t read, but must have been a challenge to follow-up given that it was published and set nearly twenty years earlier), this novel mixes romance, political thrills, history and the supernatural to give form to something that’s not boring, but could certainly use some tightening up. Bolted together from too many dissimilar parts, this novel has the unfortunate distinction of being more interesting than successful.

It begins, audaciously enough, with the President of the United States seeking psychological help. As Jeremy Haines explains to beautiful (and single) psychologist Jessica Sarazin, his last few trips on Air Force One have been plagued by visions. Not just visions, actually, but lengthy conversations with the ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After being devastated by the events of the previous novel, the President is finding great inspiration from these chats. New policy programs spring forth, stunning pundits from either sides of the political divide. But despite these clear and successful results, he can’t help but wonder; is he insane or subject to a paranormal manifestation? With Sarazin’s close help (which soon gets even closer), he sets out to investigate.

But this isn’t a time for even ghostly rumours to spring up. Going through the penultimate year of his second mandate, Haines is facing difficulties both foreign and domestic: The Communists are baring their teeth (this is a Cold War novel, after all) while, at home, a depression is trashing the economy. Haines’s enemies are just waiting for a slip-up. Worse; now that the SDI program nears completion, some elements of his cabinet are seeing an occasion to solve the Soviet problem once and for all.

So there we go: psychiatric romance, haunted Air Force One and thrilling political fiction all blended together. Is it any wonder if some lumps don’t smoothly go together? Political fiction is so intricately based on reality-as-we-know-it that throwing a ghost in the proceeding isn’t just inappropriate: it’s completely useless. I don’t mind the romance and the portrait of FDR is sympathetic enough, but trying to mesh a ghost with the political affairs of nation is more likely to make one wish for one or the other. It certainly doesn’t help that Serling tries to have it both ways, both as a psychological hallucination (FDR as the conscience of Haines) and as a real ghost. Shrug.

Certainly, this may explain why this book has completely sunk away from public perception. It’s certainly not dull, thanks to Serling’s efficient writing style, but it’s definitely the product of a bygone time and suffers as such. You can read it, enjoy the policy arguments (there are a number of clever ideas, though I’m not sure how practical, say, a national lottery would truly be) but close the book and it will vanish, a lot like a ghost of barely-adequate fiction…

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