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In his well-reviewed debut Enter, Night, a chilling and atmospheric throwback to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot fused with the gothic leanings of an early V.C. Andrews novel, author Michael Rowe added both depth and dimension to the otherwise overplayed vampire mythos, injecting it with some much needed viability.
Wild Fell finds the Canadian scribe mining another equally familiar horror trope–the ghost story. And the results are likewise impressive.
Like Enter, Night before it,Wild Fell opens with an extended prologue set in 1960 and told from a third-person narrative. Two teenage lovers go for a forbidden late-night swim off the shore of Devil’s Lake near Blackmore Island in Ontario, Canada. Now all good genre readers know nothing good will ever come from a body of water forebodingly named Devil’s Lake, and Rowe’s own fictional water body doesn’t disappoint. It’s a genuinely creepy and effective opening that both reads as a self-contained urban legend and establishes the mythos that will drive the rest of the novel.
“And this is how legends begin in small northern towns on the edge of places other people only drive through on their way to somewhere else: with a scream in the dark, and half a century passed in waiting.”
Rowe then hands the narrative reins over to his protagonist, Jameson Browning, who we meet briefly as an adult before flashing back to 1971 where we spend a good portion of the novel following Jamie as a shy, sensitive suburban boy on the verge of adolescence. Rowe masterfully captures that transitional decade between the hopeful idealism of the 60s and the rank capitalism of the 80’s with an elegant, almost melancholic tinge that will have you hearing Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” in the background. Rowe possesses a special capacity for allowing readers to revisit childhood through his characters, and he keenly captures the joys and insecurities and, at times, abject terrors of those years with an almost sun-washed hue of bittersweet nostalgia. His ability to capture the bond between a boy and his pet (in this case, a turtle), in particular, and the poignancy he evokes out of theses human-animal connections is noteworthy to mention.
The product of an increasingly unhappy marriage between an oppressive, spiteful mother and loving, protective father, reclusive Jamie develops a relationship with the ghostly Amanda, a seemingly imaginary friend he sees only reflected back in mirrors in the dark of night. But Jamie soon learns that Amanda isn’t merely an otherworldly playmate as she turns protector and things soon take a dark and violent turn. Amanda is banished as a result, but she proves an ever-patient ghost.
Adult Jamie–now divorced and caring for his once-kindly father who’s in the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease–finds himself simultaneously unemployable as a high school English teacher and wealthy following a semi-debilitating automobile accident. On impulse, or perhaps unearthly impetus, he purchases Blackmore Island, complete with its crumbling mansion of the title, which once stood as an architectural testament to the prestige of the island’s clan of namesake English founders.
Commendably, as the secrets of the inhabitants of Wild Fell unravel and the parallels between Jamie and Amanda become increasingly clear – like a camera lens that comes slowly and painstakingly into perfect focus–Rowe exceeds genre expectations altogether. He skillfully embraces many of the traditional ghost story conventions without ever allowing trope to become trapping. Wisely, he eschews chain-rattling spooks and opts for a disquieted soul trapped between two worlds–without sacrificing any of the genre-requisite eeriness.
The novel concludes–as all good ghost stories do–at the intersection between past and present, with Rowe leaving just enough room for the reader’s own interpretation of the ghost of Blackmore Island. Is Amanda merely a trauma-troubled soul, the manifestation of some great psychological unrest within Jamie himself, or an internalized defense mechanism leftover from his boyhood?
Like all great works of genre fiction, Wild Fell keeps us just slightly off balance–not enough to throw us dramatically into a free-falling plunge by novel’s end but just enough to keep us wondering (in the words of Poe) if “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Even Rowe’s narrative structure proves unpredictable with the story’s protagonist not even setting foot in the haunted abode until the beginning of the novel’s third act, a gutsy and determined narrative maneuvering that could easily have failed in the hands of a lesser writer. As in his debut, Rowe proves exceptionally adept at twisting the very structure of the novel format itself, customizing the assembly of its parts to heighten the sense of unpredictability and subvert reader expectations.
The imagery at play here is at times striking–from shrouds of fluttering moths to a discomfiting psychosexual dream sequence–and the atmosphere is likewise painted in gothic hues that color the fictional landscape of the titular manse and gives the novel an almost classical sensibility.
The queer themes are layered in ever so subtly but their resonance is no less strong for it–from the bullying young Jamie experiences (I challenge anyone who has ever attended summer camp not to break out in a cold sweat at Rowe’s depictions of life at Camp Manitou!), to the transposition of gender roles in the friendship between young Jamie and his best friend, a tomboy named Hank, to a marvelous fluidity of gender identity ingeniously at play throughout.
Falling far outside the boundaries of the dreaded sophomore slump, Rowe elevates Wild Fell to the highest order of literary ghost story, easily on par with Peter Straub’s seminal Ghost Story. Apt to raise goose-flesh in equal measure to its ability to strike an emotional chord, it’s a novel of extraordinary restraint and refinement that’s as typical as it is atypical in the pantheon of ghost stories.
By Michael Rowe
Paperback, 9781771481595, 300 pp.