January 08, 2015


Gideon. By Alex Gordon. Harper Voyager. $14.99.

     Strictly bound within a genre that it makes no attempt to stretch, filled with clichés of that genre and now-typical ironic asides in which characters hint that they know they are trapped in a formulaic situation, Alex Gordon’s debut novel nevertheless thrills and enthralls through the sheer virtuosity with which it explores so many often-before-visited supernatural realms. It takes a while for Gideon to get going, but when it does, it pulls readers inexorably (and likely against their better judgment) into a story whose manifest ridiculousness detracts not a whit from its chilling power. This is the tale of a decrepit (of course), isolated (of course) Illinois town where the line between life and death is very thin indeed (of course). And it is the story of evils done in generations past coming home to roost in the present (of course). And the story of a protagonist’s discovery of where she, all unknowing (of course), fits into the town’s history – and how she may be the key to the survival or destruction not just of the town and its people but of much, much more (of course).

     Despite all the “of courses,” Gideon – that is the town’s name – is a gripping book whose central theme, as one character tells protagonist Lauren Reardon, is that “just because you don’t know your past doesn’t mean you don’t pay the price for it.” A scary thought, that, one of many that will prevent readers from regarding Lauren’s wholly unbelievable situation as being too outré to merit their sympathetic involvement. Gideon is yet another variation on a theme that William Faulkner captured so well in his famous lines from Requiem for a Nun in 1951: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Indeed, the past blends into the present in Gideon not once but multiple times: the majority of the book is set in the present day, but the novel opens in 1836 (with Gordon cleverly weaving into it the real-world story of a still-unexplained sudden huge temperature drop that year), continues in 1871 (with Gordon relating happenings in Gideon to that year’s Chicago fire), and is strongly tied in its modern elements to 1978. Both the old and new sections of the book begin with a death: in 1836, the burning of a man named Nicholas Blaine – who may or may not be the devil himself, or a close approximation thereof; in 2015, the death from cancer of Lauren’s father and Lauren’s subsequent discovery that nothing she thought she knew of him was the truth – not even his name.

     So Lauren sets out to uncover her father’s history in the town of Gideon, despite the warnings of a modern-day witch who dies quite gruesomely because she tries to help (another “of course” moment that Gordon manages to transcend). Oh yes, witchcraft is quite real and even normal in Gideon, a town that, like Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, lies on the boundary between the commonplace and the decidedly unsettling. In Gideon, Blaine, who is not quite dead but nevertheless trapped (by an ancestor of Lauren, of course), is growing in power on the other side while the living residents of the town divide themselves into two camps (of course) – one wishing to welcome Blaine and use him to gain power (or so they very naïvely think, of course), the other trying to keep him at bay but lacking strength to do so in the absence of anyone from Lauren’s familial line (of course). Throughout the book, “of course” follows “of course.” But the story never quite derails, because Gordon finds clever ways to make oft-told tales seem new. There is, for example, a wonderful image, mentioned several times, that is intended to explain what is going on between the everyday world and the world beyond in Gideon: “Like when you put the flour and milk and eggs in a bowl and give them that first stir. They’re together for good – you won’t never be able to separate them. But there are places where it’s still all one thing or the other. And those places are right next to one another, so you think you’re safe in the flour, and the next thing you know you’re in the eggs.” This homey image stands in strong contrast to the reality of the time shifting and genuine terrors that Gordon evokes – much as the nicknames given to Blaine, “Mr. Lumpy” and “Pizza Face,” seem innocent, but actually reflect a horribly fire-disfigured countenance that Blaine can, however, show if he wishes to be truly terrifying.

     Although Gideon proceeds along a number of familiar story arcs, and although its basic tale of the unknown outsider with more power and a direr history than she knows is scarcely a new one, the book continually unsettles readers by refusing to provide comfort in ways that other novels in its genre sometimes do. For example, Lauren is not merely a reluctant witch but one to whose reactions readers can readily relate: “So this is magic. Lost in the dark and wanting to vomit. The stuff of song and legend.” Yes, Lauren does proverbially stupid things, such as holding back the truth when she should tell it (of course) and venturing into places she knows to be unsafe (of course). Such are the inevitable elements of a book like this one. But Gideon is better than other books of its type, more surely paced and better able to convey a sense of mounting dread even when readers know, objectively, that they have encountered characters and plot points like the ones here many times before. If Gordon finds ways to move beyond some of the formulaic settings and characters that she seems to find obligatory to use here, her future novels may even extend the supernatural-thriller genre instead of, like Gideon, being strong entries planted firmly within it.

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