May 01, 2014
(++++) FEARS FOR ALL AGES
The Winter People. By Jennifer McMahon. Doubleday. $25.95.
Boys of Blur. By N.D. Wilson. Random House. $16.99.
Creepy settings in old New England, in the sorts of outdoor areas immortalized by H.P. Lovecraft, are the background for the mysterious and genuinely frightening events of The Winter People, an expertly woven story that seesaws back and forth in time between today and the early 20th century. Although more action-focused and far less descriptive than Lovecraft tales such as The Colour Out of Space, Jennifer McMahon’s well-paced novel partakes of many elements of the Lovecraftian ethos: inexplicable disappearances, a cave that swallows someone but is not there when searchers return, an oddly shaped rock formation long associated with evil and thought by some to have been placed by aliens, and artifacts with mysterious and malign powers that extend through centuries and bring recurrent doom to isolated residents. In McMahon’s novel, the Devil’s Hand rock formation and the areas around it are filled with ill feelings that disturb even modern, technologically savvy residents of the small town of West Hall, Vermont; but it is an off-the-grid family, the sort of lonely and isolated people on whom Lovecraft invariably focused, that most directly experiences the terrifying, otherworldly occurrences associated with the geography. That is, this is the most directly affected modern family, or at least what is left of it after the father dies and the mother simply disappears one night, leaving behind a cup filled with tea and a slice of pie with one bite taken out of it – and two very frightened children, college-age Ruthie Washburne and her little sister, Fawn. It soon transpires that their mother, Alice, had some sort of connection with disappearances and a brutal murder more than a century earlier: the diary of the murder victim, Sara Harrison Shea, turns up under the floorboards of Alice’s room. Slowly and expertly, McMahon details the parallels between Alice’s circumstances and Sara’s, as Ruthie’s offhand remark to Fawn about a Nancy-Drew-like mystery becomes increasingly distant from the reality of what the girls experience and what Ruthie, who does not believe in the supernatural, slowly begins to suspect may be going on. Old and new mysteries, a sense of history inexorably repeating itself (another Lovecraftian echo), the gradual realization of a central character firmly planted in the everyday world that there are things out there (also a Lovecraft trope) – these elements and more are shaken and stirred by McMahon into a gripping page-turner of a book that pulls readers in further with every new twist and revelation. The characterizations are on the thin side, despite McMahon’s rather superficial attempts to humanize the players, and throughout the book there is a sense that characters exist so things can be done to them, not so they can be active participants in the drama; it is obvious from the start, for example, that Ruthie’s claustrophobia will result in her eventually finding herself in terrifyingly close quarters. But this is a minor issue in a book that relies on atmosphere, storytelling and narrative pacing to deliver revelations that are scarcely surprising once known but that readers are unlikely to see coming. The Winter People is a story of both people and places among which readers will be relieved to realize that they need dwell only in their imagination, and only temporarily.
The steamy setting of Boys of Blur is nearly the opposite of the frigid one of The Winter People, and the action is more overt and pronounced – as befits a book intended for preteens and young teenagers rather than an adult novel. But the frights are every bit as real in N.D. Wilson’s book as in McMahon’s, and if The Winter People is redolent of Lovecraft, Boys of Blur looks much further back for its source material, all the way to Beowulf. It is a story of revenants, although not exactly of zombies, in a small and isolated Florida town called Taper, where mysterious forces make it possible for young kids to run fast – very fast, football-star fast. Locally, the runners chase muck rabbits and sell them for three dollars per skin, dodging flames in the burning sugarcane fields and speeding through the ever-present muck. But there is something about the muck itself, something that produces or preserves things that roam at night. The writing here is often deeply atmospheric: “The muck is like those coals,” one character says. “Quiet, still, full to overflowing, waiting to erupt back into the dance of life. Millions of lives from millions of different kinds of living things have formed our black soil. Putting a seed in that ground is like throwing paper onto my coals. But plant an evil seed…” And the seeds are evil indeed, creating creatures known as the Gren (think of Beowulf’s Grendel) – but who plants them? Think of the great hero’s second major battle, with Grendel’s mother, and you will have a clue: “The Gren are not alive with their own fire. …They are human seeds made into vessels for an evil as old as Cain…” Even the burial mounds of the ancient epic have their reflection in Wilson’s book. But knowing Beowulf, which is directly referenced in the book’s text, is scarcely necessary to be pulled into the world in which Boys of Blur takes place. Charlie Reynolds, the book’s protagonist, has an inward journey to make here, more than the outward one typical of Beowulf and other epics, discovering – quite literally, as it happens – what he is made of and where he fits in the odd world of Taper. This also means discovering or rediscovering family connections – a typical requirement in books for this age group, but one handled here with more than usual skill. Boys of Blur reaches a satisfying conclusion, but it is a harrowing journey getting there, not only for the characters but also for readers. Although the book does not transcend the adventure-for-young-readers genre in which it appears, it is significantly more firmly planted in that genre than are most books of its type; and for that reason, it is far less likely to be quickly forgotten after readers turn the final page.