The Short Version: Sometime in the 1990s, Ruth and Nat, two orphan children raised on a farm of other orphans, meet a mysterious stranger who begins to manage their budding career as psychic mediums. In the present, Ruth’s niece Cora is unexpectedly pregnant – and meets Ruth late one night, when she convinces Cora to leave on a trek with her. The two tales will intertwine in far upstate New York, across time and space…
The Review: I knew next to nothing going into this novel – I received it because it was an Indiespensable pick a few months back – but I was engaged from the second I touched it. Something about the cover, about the title (a reference to the devil), and the synopsis that manages to say next to nothing while still delivering a sense of modern gothic spookiness seemed right up my alley and it was, indeed, a terrific near-end to October.
Split into short rotating chapters, the story follows two strands of time: a past strand, with a young Ruth and her “sister” (best friend, partner, fellow orphan) Nat, and a present strand, with Cora and a now-silent Ruth. If you look at the book from the side, it looks shot through with black pages – these are the chapter breaks – and the speed with which the individual chapters go down helps make the book seem like it’s going faster than it possibly could be. It’s aided in this endeavor by Hunt’s prose, which snaps and whips like a live wire downed in a thunderstorm – or like the best campfire tale you’ve ever heard.
The atmosphere is obvious from the start: there’s a strange fundamentalist home for orphans, there are eerie kids, there’s a mysterious stranger… it all adds up to a typical gothic tale and the conclusion is in fact one of the most typical gothic endings. But nothing about this book feels typical, in such a way that the ending genuinely surprised me – even as I realized that Hunt had prepared us for it right from the start. She managed to keep me looking directly at what was happening, instead of letting me start getting out ahead of the story, and that’s no mean feat for an author. There is an immediacy to this book that feels particular to this time of year, the way that you sort of draw close as you walk down a darkened street with a crisp breeze and the tingle of the supernatural on the back of your neck.
The supernatural does come into play quite often here – or at least it seems to, depending on what you believe/what you consider supernatural. Nat and Ruth develop a sort of parlor game, something that’s part con and part otherworldly, involving Nat channeling the spirits of the dead. There’s much debate about how real it is, with references to the Fox sisters tossed in to stir the spot – but, to me, it felt real the whole time in the way that things that can’t quite be explained often seem more real than their eventual explanation. When Nat talks about what he was actually doing, I found that harder to believe than the idea that he was actually channeling some otherworldly spirits. And there’s a great interlude at a motel that doesn’t seem to mean all that much when it happens but that opens up the door to the supernatural in ways that shift the entire book’s axis once you put it together – rather wonderfully, I might add.
Of course, there’s the ghostly supernatural and then the religious one – and fundamentalism, with all its creepy connotations, does hang over this book like a sheet over furniture in a closed-up house. The Father is a backwoods bastard out of Frank Bill or Donald Ray Pollock – with perhaps some shadings, just faintly, of Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char – and Zeke’s reappearance as the leader of a comet-cult (or a Comet-cult) is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of nightmares that feel all the worse for the way they walk the line between the unreal and the very real. Hunt seems fascinated with how stories like Joseph Smith’s become the foundation for something far larger – and the way that deep-seated beliefs of any kind can blinker a person’s understanding of the larger world, warping it to fit an idea instead of adapting to the world as it is. Maybe you don’t find that sort of thing spooky – but if you do (and I do), Hunt has got some thrills in store.
And then there’s the things that seem… not surreal in the artistic sense but just slightly extreme when you consider reality. Mr. Bell, for example, is a character out of a Bradbury novel – or out of Bradbury-time, at least – and his appearance seems like the sort of thing that couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be able to happen so close to our present moment. And yet the fact that it does reminds a reader that there is magic enough in the world, even still. Similarly, Cora and Ruth’s long walk – they walk from Niagara Falls basically across New York State over the course of seven or so months – seems like something impossible, strange, even otherworldly… but it also seems oddly magical and suddenly very possible, in the way that magic can sometimes reveal itself and change your perspective.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Although, in the course of Cora and Ruth’s walk, the story seems to drift at times, there is a vibrancy and urgency to this novel that matches the autumn leaves outside my window. In some ways, it is an heir to the Bradbury tales of yore – but it is also something entirely of the present moment, a Gothic Novel that does not so much take on gothic tropes as it does update and refresh them. There are ghosts, there are horrible humans, there is goodness and love and light – and all of it blends together in the twining of campfire smoke, a tale well told by someone who maybe doesn’t want to scare you but who does have an interest in making you think just a few seconds longer about what might be out there in the world, in the darkness, behind the moon.