Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman (Ace, Sept. 2011)-When Frank Nichols and his wife Dora move into his aunt’s house in rural Whitbrow, Georgia, they’re eager for a fresh start. Frank plans to write a book about the nearby Savoyard Plantation, which belonged to his great-grandfather, and Dora will teach at the local school. They quickly settle into the rhythm of small town life and find the people to be friendly and welcoming, and in particular, Frank befriends the local eccentric (and taxidermist), a man named Martin Cranmer, who sees in Frank a fellow academic mind and spirit. Frank knows he must begin writing his novel, but first he needs to find a guide willing to take him across the river to comb the woods for the remains of his great-grandfather’s plantation. This isn’t going to be easy, because Whitbrow’s citizenry is wary of those woods, and Frank thinks he understands why. They’re overgrown, very thick, and quite intimidating, but really, it’s the history of the plantation that gives them their undeniable menace. His great-grandfather was a slave-owner of the cruelest sort and his depravity has not been forgotten. So, Frank must make the journey himself, and it’s on this first excursion that Frank discovers all may not be well in Whitbrow.
Those Across the River takes place in the 30s, about 17 years since the end of WWI, and Frank, in fact, is a veteran that is still haunted by the war and the death of his best friend, a haunting which manifests itself in vivid, terrible dreams. These dreams soon take a backseat, however, to the terror that Frank and Dora find themselves embroiled in after a very fateful decision is made to do away with a long held tradition in Whitbrow. I’m being vague because I really don’t want to spoil the hair raising fun of realizing exactly what it is that lurks in those dark woods, and the ties that bind it to Savoyard Plantation.
Those Across the River is Christopher Buehlman’s first novel, but you’d never know it. It has an undeniable mid twentieth century literary sensibility that only serves to highlight the visceral horror that lurks alongside this seemingly bucolic southern town. Speaking of southern, Buehlman gets the rural, post-Depression setting exactly right, and provides an almost dreamlike intro to a decidedly gut-punching finale.
I loved this book. It’s everything I want in horror and while he explores some hard to read stuff, like the treatment of slaves at the hand of Frank’s grandfather, it’s not gratuitous, rather it’s an exploration of the power of cruelty and its ability to twist something into the foulest sort of evil. One particularly harrowing scene is actually in a convalescent home where Frank interviews a few people who were privy to his great-grandfather’s dark deeds. Buehlman knows how to build menace like a pro, and this book has some of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever read. If you’re a reader of horror and of the things that go bump, you’ll probably start to suspect what lurks across the river, but it doesn’t make the reveal any less horrifying, or ultimately, tragic. I finished this one in one sitting and moved right along to The Necromancer’s House, kicking myself the whole time about the fact that these books have been on my shelf for ages and I’m just now getting around to them. Shame on me. Don’t miss this one.
The Necromancer’s House by Christopher Buehlman (Ace, Oct. 2013)-The Necromancer’s House is a very different book than Those Across the River, but it’s just as good. The author plops us down into a contemporary setting for this one, with the magic filled home of Andrew Blankenship the centerpiece. Andrew is a highly talented mage whose youthful vigor and good looks masks his true age and who has recently taken on Anneke Zautke as his apprentice. Andrew is hopelessly in love with Anneke, but she’s still in love with her ex-girlfriend, a girl she must never see again (for various reasons.) The death of Andrew’s Russian neighbor, at the hand of one of Andrew’s decidedly non-human acquaintances sets off a chain of events that leads the wrath of an ancient evil right to his door.
Buehlman takes his time with this book, setting up, in a non-linear way, Andrew’s discovery that he was “luminous” and brief looks at Andrew as a young man. Andrew is also an alcoholic, as is Anneke, and the narrative is interspersed with AA meetings , including conversations with Andrew’s sponsor, who is actually dead. As the title indicates, Andrew is a necromancer, and most of his magic reflects this specialty in some way, to fantastic effect. His house is a mélange of fantastical creations and booby traps for the unwary that may wish him harm, and Andrew lives with Salvador, a wicker man whose head is a portrait of Salvador Dali, but who, to the non-luminous, looks like a young man with a passing resemblance to John Leguizamo. I loved this book for many reasons, but Salvador is a big part of that, and is a “living” embodiment of the tragedy and loss that Andrew’s life has been defined by. He also communicates via Etch-a-Sketch. He’s just… awesome.
While Andrew must gear up for a final battle with an enemy that matches him in ability, the real story lies with Andrew, a man that is so very powerful, yet crushingly lonely. This is a bit of a melancholy book, but it’s so magical, even whimsical, at times, that there is an undeniable thread of hope running through the complex tapestry that is Andrew’s life. Buehlman’s highly imaginative take on magic is a delight, and I completely fell for these characters, even the feisty rusalka that kicks off Baba Yaga’s reign of terror. Russian folklore, magic (such magic!!), aging, loss, loneliness, and ultimately love are all wrapped in Buehlman’s distinctively clever (and frequently funny) story about a very unusual group of people, and their very unusual talents. Unembellished prose and fairly short chapters deliver up much mayhem, and even a fair amount of heartbreak. This book is enchanting, and very satisfying, but the ending is anything but conventional. It is awesome, though. Good thing that The Lesser Dead drops in a few weeks. I supposed I’ll have to fill that time with Between Two Fires…