29 September 2011

Those Across the River (Christopher Buehlman)

Oh man, guys. This is a scary book.

I rarely turn to movies for the experience of pleasurable (because controlled) fear--doesn't usually work for me, though I am a sucker for haunted house stories. Have you ever seen The Sentinel? It is great. Instead, perhaps because I'm more used to manipulation via fiction (fiction is manipulation, pure and simple, the creation of real emotions from imaginary stimuli), I turn to horror novels for the keep-you-up-at-night shivers.

I was smart enough to read Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman's first novel, in broad daylight, but it slow-build menace did a number on me nonetheless. It's the story of WWI vet Frank Nichols and the woman he calls his wife, Eudora, who move together to the small town of Whitbrow, GA, to take possession of a house bequeathed him by an aunt he never met. This despite the aunt's dire warning to sell the property without setting foot there, because "this place will smell out I fear what is in you and claim you, for its own, it, will, hug, your, bones, into, the woods, & you will wish that you had never"

Frank and Eudora should be forgiven for ignoring this disturbingly effective dispatch from Horror Tropes 101; after all, it's 1934, jobs are scarce, and the scandal of their affair (Eudora was married to a professorial colleague of Frank's at the University of Michigan) has pushed Frank out of academia. In Whitbrow, they'll have a place to live, Eudora can take over the teaching job the deceased aunt vacated, and Frank can refurbish his credentials by writing a book about his vicious ancestor Lucien Savoyard, slaughtered on his plantation across the river by the slaves he refused to free.

Except nobody in Whitbrow goes across the river, and they can't quite say why. But every full moon for as long as the town can remember, they've sent a pair of pigs over there, garlanded with flowers and consecrated in a half-pagan rite that Frank and Eudora observe with amusement. Of course, the smiles don't last, and neither does the ritual--in the depths of the Depression, who can spare the pork? And really, what is it protecting them from? Is there really something there, across the river, waiting and watching in the dark of the woods?

SPOILER (you know, for aliens and time travelers): Yes. And while the enemy is ultimately familiar, Buehlman does a masterful job of drawing out the reader's anticipation, parceling suspense and shocks with style, like Santa Claus leaving a rattlesnake in your stocking. Good, scary stuff--shelve it with Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and you may never sleep again.

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