Horrorible Review: “Those Across the River” + “Necromancer’s House”

Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!

Those Across the River book cover

Those Across the River

and

The Necromancer's House book cover

The Necromancer’s House

From glitzy New York City’s disco era to very rural Georgia in 1935, author Christopher Buehlman is unafraid to go there, wherever “there” is in his latest novel.  Those Across the River was his debut but of course I started in the middle with his next book The Lesser Dead. The two are vastly different, and both of them nothing like The Necromancer’s House, his third book. I don’t recommend reading these back to back unless you like your head to go all Linda Blair on you.

In Those Across the River it’s summer in the Great Depression, in a sleepy place that seems outside normal time and place for the modern reader. Frank is a veteran of the Great War over in France and bears the scars outside and in, awake or dreaming.  His beloved wife Dora moves with him from Chicago to a sleepy village (think Fried Green Tomatoes) and into his inheritance, his aunt’s house in the town his evil great grandfather reigned over during the States War.

As you may recall me mentioning before, zombies are my favorite monster.  They’re poignant and dangerous in large numbers and goofy in the right hands. Vampires annoy me with their evil glamor but I can tolerate them if the author is good enough. So far only Stephen King and Christopher Buehlman have managed.  But I absolutely can NOT stand werewolves.  I’ve been talked into reading several werewolf novels and I hated all but one of them. The monster is nasty, dirty, and purely evil with no redeeming qualities.  You can smell the wolf piss wafting up from every page. I don’t think any movie has ever done them justice, most of them trying hard to make the beasts noble and sympathetic when that’s not what they are.  Well, here is the second werewolf novel I have absolutely loved, and I wish someone would make the movie.

Those Across the River fully captures the mental tone, the constant desperation of the Great Depression in an already economically backward area.  In Buehlman’s 1970s New York things move with a modern, frantic, urban hustle.  Here, the action builds with the languid pace of a hot and dusty summer in a time and place before television, with barely any automobiles, and telephones you had to go to if you wanted to call someone – who may not have their own telephone. The people speak in a lazy patois that he outlines but doesn’t overuse.  He depicts his characters without the sneering cynicism you sometimes get with modern authors.

Frank and Dora don’t come to love their new home, but they’ve comfortable for a while and nearly manage to blend their Yankee selves into the rural community that herds a garlanded pair of swine into the woods across the river once a month at the full moon.  Like a drop of catalyst into a volatile solution, their arrival changes a long, delicate balance and sets truly horrible events into motion.  The book is scary and sometimes grotesque.   Buehlman works in horror that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand and your mind wonder how dark and awful the world could be. Unlike other, major horror writers, he has no trouble wowing a reader at the end without a huge government conspiracy or not-quite-killed evil. Instead, he makes you love the two main characters, does horrible things to them, and at the end gives the narrator an unimaginably horrible choice.  One I have no idea how I would decide.

Then I read The Necromancer’s House.

Again with the completely different.  In modern day New York State, Andrew the wizard (he prefers magus) attends AA meetings, deals with being not so secretly in love with his lesbian protégé, and worries that his old nemesis Baba Yaga isn’t done with him.

Beyond the seemingly mundane, modern setting, this book is also constructed in a more modern literary style.  The fragmented narrative skips back and forth from character to character, places and times, and with a somewhat unreliable narrator.  Typically, I would toss a book like this across the room, and I almost did give it up a few times because I’m not a fan of authors who toy with their readers this way.  But dang it all, Buehlman is so good I stuck with it.  The subtle hints that he is actually telling a story with the constant barrage of action and character snips was enough to keep me reading.

For one thing, the characters are all fascinating in their own way. Andrew is an alcoholic, recovering, and has some habits dangerous to the addictive personality like communicating with his dead wife via VHS and not getting rid of the demon he has trapped in a cave. He has a sort of pet Rasulka, a kind of deadly Russian water nymph, and his butler is a construct of prosthetics, a Dali print for a head, and his beloved dog’s heart in a cage. There are many other equally interesting characters, and Buehlman has created a magical world that is understandable, believable, and compelling. This is a treatise on how to achieve an enjoyable modern novel, using all the tricks of the uber without being a goober to your readers.

I highly recommend you try at least one of Buehlman’s books. Each one is vastly different from the others in style but not substance, because they’re all emotionally gripping stories set in fascinating worlds with powerfully drawn characters. So yeah, he does have another book out, The Suicide Motor Club, in which he returns to vampires, this time driving hot rods in the southwest desert and scoring off crashes with unsuspecting motorists.  Yes, I am wanting to buy it, but it’s a rare, rare author who gets a hardback purchase from me. When the paperback comes out in February I will probably buy it, despite its inflated price.  He’s that good.

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