The Short Version: In the New England town of Pequot’s Landing, twins Niles & Holland Perry are 13 years old. But where Niles is sweet and kind, Holland is mischievious and stubborn – the two boys couldn’t be more dissimilar. After a family tragedy, the extended clan comes together to support the boys and their ailing mother – and as the summer turns to the fall, Holland’s tricks take a darker and more violent turn. But as it turns out, there’s a whole lot more than meets the eye to the Perry boys and Niles can no longer keep his brother under control…
The Short Version: And WELCOME to October, folks! Regular readers of the blog are familiar with this time of year – dedicated to novels that are spooky, creepy, thrilling, etc: novels of The October Country, honoring the great Ray Bradbury. I received this book a few months ago from the wonderful people at New York Review Books but I wanted to hold off on reading it until the time of year was right. It was only properly published yesterday, so I think I made the right choice. Earlier this week, as the winds blew crisp here in New York and the leaves started to turn, I found myself pulled into the ever-shifting mystery of Tyron’s ‘bucolic’ New England town.
In the spirit of the great spooky thrillers of the 70s – the first things to come to mind are stories like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, etc – everything seems a little off-kilter in this quiet town. There’s something not right here. We just don’t quite know what. There’s a bit of a madwoman-in-the-attic, with the boy’s distressed mother rarely leaving her room and sunk in a haze. There’s a slightly mystical magical ability, brought from the old country through bloodlines. And there are some grisly horror movie moments. I’ve been debating about whether or not to go into spoilers here… and I feel like I’m going to try to avoid them, since this is a novel I’d highly recommend specifically for its more shocking twists. So I’m going to try and tread carefully from here on out… but be warned, it’s tough.
I literally gasped out loud several times while reading this book. I hope the curator of the Underground New York Public Library managed to capture my face last night on the train home – my eyes were wide as saucers and I may’ve even broke out in a bit of a flop sweat. There are several well-played twists in this novel to be sure, but none of them hit home as well as the one at the end of Part 2. But again, I get ahead of myself / I’m veering towards spoilers.
The afterword, by Dan Chaon, makes note of how this book subtly shifts several times during the story. There’s an odd (and, to my mind, slightly flawed) first person narrator at the beginning of the novel who pops up a few times and seems somewhat out of sync with the rest of the story… and that narrator sets you up to be off-balance from moment one. Then, just when you think this is actually a psychological horror novel and it’s going to just be mind games, there’s a terrific and breathtaking build-up to a really fantastically gruesome death - and the novel spins off in yet another direction. Then, as various lines of reality begin to dissolve, you have to wonder about everything. The final major twist (well, the one I mentioned before at the end of Part 2) makes you immediately reevaluate the ground you’re standing on – with disconcerting results.
Tryon’s writing is poetic and imaginative, which suits his young protagonist (Niles – I’d argue that Niles is the main character while Holland, his brother, is more supporting, although the twins obviously spend much of their time together) well. That is perhaps Tryon’s other great achievement with this book: capturing the way the world looks through that Bradburyian lens. Stephen King does it, sometimes. It’s not specifically a feature of ‘horror’ novels but I find that those novels are the ones that manage it best, for some reason. Think of Bradbury and Something Wicked This Way Comes – those descriptions that feel like the last warm breeze of summer blowing the first orange leaf off your favorite tree. That’s the sort of voice that Tryon writes with here – except that he, like King, uses it to couch horrifying events. The disparity between the two is what heightens the reality of the novel and makes it so damn good.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I can’t speak too much further to the novel, unfortunately, because I’m afraid I’m going to give away twists. And I want to keep this novel as under wraps as possible because it’s just good clean Halloween fun. It’s the sort of book meant to be read in October, outside, with some apple cider. It’s not entirely likely to keep you up at night in fright (although I will say that I do know a set of twins who could easily be a real-life Holland and Niles… yikes…) but it’ll set your pulse racing and keep you turning pages to get to the end. And it’ll make you think. I was so pleasantly surprised to be so gobsmacked by the twists – it’s rare that such a thing happens and I’m overjoyed that NYRB has made it possible for new audiences to find this book.