A Haunting Coming of Age Tale

9781408815168

Canada by Richard Ford

“First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

I had the privilege of hearing a lecture from Richard Ford sometime in the fall of 2014. He was a guest of the NC Literary Festival hosted at North Carolina State University. The NC Literary Festival occurs each year and is shared between three major universities in the Triangle region: Duke University in Durham, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Ford is a distinguished looking man in his seventies with an impressive writing resume behind him. His graying hair and pale blue eyes betray his warmth and intelligence and on that particular day he wore pink socks (which I complimented him on). In his lecture, he spoke of his childhood and life growing up in Mississippi with his parents and the influences of his writing. As he spoke, he came across to the audience as endearing and funny and you really felt as if you could listen to him speak for hours.

But Ford’s career (and life) is not in lecturing. It is in writing. And it is in his writing that we can celebrate his insightful wisdom and linguistic creativity and treasure him as a rare and gifted writer still working today. Copies of his novels were, of course, available for sale after his lecture and, while never having read anything by Ford, I purchased a copy of Canada. It was his newest novel at the time and one that was on my reading list for a while. Once I began to read the novel I knew then that I was in the hands of an observant, subtle and masterful writer.

Canada is the tale of fifteen year old Dell Parsons, our protagonist in a story hinged on the long and complex history of American crime and violence. Set in the 1960’s in Great Falls, Montana, Dell’s parents, out of financial desperation (and some kind of haphazard attempt to redeem themselves) make the fateful decision to rob a bank. When their plan ultimately fails and they are taken in by the authorities, Dell and his sister, Berner, suddenly find themselves abandoned and alone. Then Berner takes off for California while Dell is smuggled across the border into Canada by a close friend of his mother.

It is there in Canada that Dell is left in the care of the enigmatic Arthur Remlinger, a man who desperately tries to hide a dark and violent past. While adjusting to the strange people around him and his lukewarm living arrangements, Dell wonders at his uncertain future and explores what it means to call someplace “home.” But as Dell struggles to come to terms with the impact of his parent’s mistake and imprisonment, the mysterious Remlinger hurtles them both towards a disastrous collision with the law and murder.

Canada is a richly layered novel that illustrates Ford’s skillful and natural gift of observation with a lyrical prose infrequently matched by other writers today. Ford’s mastery of language is what commands your attention. While his writing here is deliberately slow and measured (and it seems as if Ford could have written this story without end) he deftly probes the effects of the crime on Dell and how it shapes his view of the world while touching on themes of adolescence, violence and self-discovery. Canada is a startling coming-of-age tale that’s a must read, especially during the bitter cold winter months. It is at once dark, funny, observant and altogether wonderful. A haunting, beautifully written piece of literature.

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by Todd Rigney

 

This is a little gem of a horror book.

With the beautifully simple and chilling opening line, “My brother keeps a human head in his closet,” you’re hooked from the start. At a lean 127 pages, Rigney’s story follows Marty, a shy fifth grader who does well in school and has only one real friend. But things begin to change after a bullying incident at school and Marty finds himself alone and alienated. His parents don’t really understand how to help him. His mother allows him to stay home for a few days following the incident, but that doesn’t really seem to help Marty’s lingering problem at school or with his classmates. When his one friend finally agrees to a sleepover, Marty does everything he can to please his friend, who seems disinterested in Marty’s horror movie fascination. There’s a sadness in knowing that the bullying incident has created a rift in even the one friendship Marty has. And as if all of this is not enough, Marty is burdened with a particularly dark secret that hovers his family – his older brother, Steve, happens to be a serial killer (as revealed in the opening line).

Written with straightforward and simple prose, Rigney wrote the novella in about two weeks and self-published it. He handles and addresses rather sensitive and mature themes, especially regarding Steve’s motivation to kill. These themes and issues are similar to issues that Rigney mentions in interviews that he dealt with while growing up in Kentucky. Some fans have questioned if the story goes too far with some of the themes, but we should be mindful that this is still a horror story and there is often a greater flexibility and forgiveness handed to a horror writer. It’s certainly not for everyone, but horror story fans will appreciate Rigney’s approach. He builds the suspense nicely and gives us an honest and human narrator in Marty. The story falters only slightly when Marty’s father suddenly resorts to mild violence which sets off a major showdown later. Yes, the ending is graphic and disturbing and you know even from the beginning of the story that things probably won’t end well. But what happens in the end almost seems too abrupt in the brief time we’ve shared with Marty and his dysfunctional family. In retrospect, it probably works in the context of the story but might have been embraced more if fine tuned and expanded on a little bit.

Rigney also leaves a huge desire to explore more with Steve and his killing nature. The suspense is strongest in the moments when Steve appears. The way he stands silently at the bedroom door and watches Marty or when he comes home in the middle of the day and Marty hears him downstairs, then his footsteps coming up the stairs and disappearing into his bedroom. There’s a terrific sense of foreboding each time and you hold your breath wondering what has Steve done or what will he do. Perhaps Rigney is clever in leaving out the gory details of Steve’s kills, letting the horror of the unknown fester in your imagination. It’s creepy to experience all of this from Marty’s point of view, his terror in knowing that a serial killer lives and breathes in the same house. Through all of it, you root for Marty and you hope nothing happens to him. You feel for him, sensing his longing to share a normal relationship with his older brother, while understanding his maturity in the realization this will never happen. We certainly have Rigney to thank for giving us something new and exciting in the horror genre.

The buzz surrounding the film, which has been circulating the independent horror film festivals worldwide, has garnered quite a bit of attention for both Rigney and director, Scott Schirmer, who co-wrote the script together. The film is available on iTunes and will be released on DVD in late September. Fans and critics are giving the film excellent reviews and the word is that it’s equally, if not more terrifying, thrilling and shocking than its inspiration. Do yourself a favor, though. Read Rigney’s novella. If you’re brave, read it late one night, with only one light on, and let yourself be terrified.

The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff

The Unseen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The novelist, Alexandra Sokoloff, details on her blog, Screenwriting Tricks, about the process of using screenwriting elements and film structure to develop and create riveting stories that capture the reader’s attention. After reading any one of her novels, it is easy to see why her methods are so successful. Sokoloff has built a career on supernatural thrillers (her debut novel, The Harrowing, won the Bram Stoker Award) and she relies on her screenwriting expertise and background to craft together novels that the reader can imagine watching as a film. They are thrilling and well-plotted, combining suspense, humor and romance. There is a clear sensuality that permeates her prose, which is exhibited once again in The Unseen.

It is a tale based on the paranormal studies that took place at Duke University during the 1960s and an ill-fated present day attempt to recreate those studies by two professors and students.  Dr. Laurel MacDonald is a psychology professor, damaged by a failed relationship in California. She escapes by moving to the east coast and accepts a job at the distinguished Duke University, “a Gothic castle of a school,” nestled deep in the Piedmont regions of North Carolina. There she discovers one night in the rare books library an old parapsychology study by the Rhine Lab that ran for thirty-eight years before closing in 1965. The Rhine Lab studied the possibilities of ESP, which is of notable interest to Laurel. But what captures her attention more is the seven hundred boxes of original research material available and no one seems to be studying them.

She meets Tyler, a young male student who instantly picks up on Laurel’s interest in the paranormal. He speaks with a southern drawl and his cat-like watch over her is dangerously seductive. Also joining them in the investigation is co-professor, Dr. Brendan Cody, and another student, Katrina. Answers are sought behind the reasons for Dr. Alaistar Leish’s death, the last person to head the Rhine Lab studies, and why the lab was shut down shortly after. The four attempt to re-create the original parapsychology study, which takes them to rural North Carolina to the Folger House past “horse pastures and patchwork fields bordered by split-rail fences.” This house was researched before which is allegedly haunted by a poltergeist and Laurel notes the wall of tall green trees surrounding the house that “gave an otherworldliness to the place that was awesome and unnerving.” The activation of the experiment in the spooky estate soon turns dangerous as they each become vulnerable and fall prey to menacing paranormal encounters. Like “rats in a maze” they must rely on their wits and physical strength to escape from the presence that threatens to trap them in that house.

Sokoloff sets up her characters nicely and builds the novel steadily, propelling the reader to its exciting finality. The use of Duke University offers the perfect setting – a campus adorned with Gothic stone arches and gargoyles, which seem to watch Laurel’s every move – heightening the spooky effect that Sokoloff is after here. And the Folger House is a classic haunted house. The Unseen recalls Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, or even Tobe Hooper’s film, Poltergeist, but it stands solidly alone as a modern take on the paranormal suspense. The novel delivers what it promises: a fast paced, well executed thriller that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy

 

 

Benjamin Percy’s debut is a noteworthy novel rife with danger and suspense, keeping the reader on edge and cautious of what might happen next. There’s a palpable electric charge simmering underneath the surface in this tale of fathers and sons and man versus nature. Percy examines the complex dynamics of familial relationships and explores the primitive instincts that each of us holds back, the awareness of its need to be released every now and then. Written in present tense narrative, Percy draws the reader in close to the events unfolding on the page, as if you are watching through the scope of a hunting rifle, while he skillfully builds the novel
toward its unexpected climax.
The story follows Justin, an English teacher, and his wife, Karen, who live in Bend, Oregon. They are distanced from one another due to a recent and painful loss of a baby and their marriage is on the brink of collapse with their son, Graham, the only thing keeping them together at this point. Justin tries to maintain a sense of normalcy at home, striving to hang on to the family life he once felt secure in and hoping to get past this rough patch with his wife. Through unspoken words and the veiled iciness of Karen’s reactions toward him, he quietly remembers the way things once were between them, fading memories that remain only that.
In contrast, we see Karen, who sometimes “feels like two women,” and the failure of bearing another child a weight of guilt that burdens her. While she feels stifled by Justin (and at times by Graham), she secretly longs to escape from a marriage that perpetually traps her, longing to be the women she once was. She is beautiful, eats healthy and takes up running to keep fit, running ten miles or more a day. But she remains vulnerable and her attempts to shed her mind and body from the ordinary, everyday life that is contained “behind walls mortared by makeup and casseroles and laundry detergent” still deters her. And this desire for freedom does not come without its own dangers, as her beauty brings the attraction of other men who quickly notice her. They admire her, leer at her, and desire her in ways that is not always welcomed.
Justin and Graham decide to give Karen a break and leave her alone for a few days as they head off to Echo Canyon, deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest on a hunting trip with Justin’s father, Paul. This is a last attempt to escape to and experience the Native American lands before it is developed into a casino and resort. While Justin is a mild-mannered young father, Paul is rough, a tough sort of man who craves the excitement and thrill of the wildness. He likes to say things like, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Justin and Paul each have a very different idea of the kind of hunting trip experience they want to give Graham and as they venture into the wilderness, painful memories slowly surface as Justin watches his father and is reminded of the man he once was and of their difficult relationship. At the same time, he holds a close watch on Graham, tying to ensure that he keeps him safe as a promise to Karen. But the three soon encounter dangers in the woods, both seen and unseen, and they are tested to their limits by the will to survive. In a particularly tense scene when Justin and Graham make their way out of the woods at night, escaping a danger that threatens them from the darkness, Percy makes a terrific observation of that separation between civilization and nature.  Justin eyes a collection of heavy machinery and is drawn to them. “Perhaps because they seem, all crowded together, like a fortress they can lock themselves away in – or perhaps because they represent what he seeks so desperately – civilization, the very thing that promises to contain and annihilate whatever wildness pursues them.” Though the landscape imagined here speaks of a dangerous wildness that exists both in nature and civilized humanity, Percy seems to hint to the reader there is always a glimmer of hope in all things.

The prose is powerful and Percy has an uncanny ability to detail simple things into one of unparalleled beauty. Anyone who enjoys a good adventure mixed with drama in a psychological thriller will appreciate this promising debut, showcasing a rare and skillful writer who is certain to deliver more.