Thursday, March 8, 2012

Those Across the River

by Christopher Buehlman
(New York: Ace, 2011)
eBook, 386 Pages, 422 KB, Fiction

Failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife, Eudora, have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family's old estate—the Savoyard Plantation—and the horrors that occurred there. At first, the quaint, rural ways of their new neighbors seem to be everything they wanted. But there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice. It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of Savoyard still stand. Where a longstanding debt of blood has never been forgotten. A debt that has been waiting patiently for Frank Nichols's homecoming...

I guess it’s been my time to be surprised by a book I’m reading when the plot takes a hanging left turn to a direction that I was not expecting. It happened with The Shimmer and now it’s happened with Those Across the River. Though unlike with The Shimmer, when it happened in this Buehlman’s book I was absolutely riveted and enjoyed every minute of the gear change that took place. Though, to be honest, I did not have very many expectations for this book to begin with, other than it was a horror novel and a period piece.

Getting into it, though I kind of figured that this would be another Deliverance clone crossed with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre … you know, standard horror fair: murderous, cannibalistic hillbillies. I was working with that hypothesis through a good half to two-thirds of the book until the actual secret of Those Across the River is revealed and oh boy … did I not expect what I got. It was a complete and utter surprise, and let me tell you, that is awesome. Very rarely have I come across a book that can hold its secrets so close to the vest for so long and I have to praise and laud the book that does. Really, when the secret comes, wow!

Aside from that, the rest of the book is absolutely wonderful. From the characters of Frank Nichols and Eudora to the residents of Whitbrow, Buehlman has created a rich tapestry of people that populate his little corner of the South. It is amazing to see them come to life and walk across the pages and the care and meticulousness with which Buehlman writes about their lives is absolutely captivating. This little Southern backwater is vivid under Buehlman’s hand and not in a sepia-toned, nostalgic kind of way. Rather, Whitbrow is vibrant and colorful, if a little on the rundown side, and when the blood begins to flow, and it does, it is bright red.

One of the only problems I had with Those Across the River is that it takes a long time to realize that this is a period piece.  At least it did to me. I couldn’t figure out until the third or fourth chapter, when it is stated explicitly that the story takes place in 1935. Until that point, I was bouncing back and forth from the 20s to the 40s to the 50s, unsure in what time, exactly, this novel takes place. But, that is a minor problem, and doesn’t detract too much from the enjoyment of the story, especially since it is resolved relatively soon and once the Nichols arrive in Whitbrow and the plot takes off in earnest, any concern I had about the time period were erased and I was pulled headfirst into the plot, trying to figure out the secret of Those Across the River.

More than anything, though, Those Across the River is all about atmosphere, and once the action moves to Whitbrow, there is no shaking the omnipresent sense that there is something fundamentally “off” about the town, its environs and the townsfolk. It is a sense of the uncanny, like how things in a mirror look correct, until you become conscious of the fact that the image is reversed, and then it just becomes … odd, but not in any way you could really put your finger on. That’s the sense of things in the first half to two-thirds of Those Across the River, and it is an absolutely delicious feeling, being so off-balance in a book.

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