Latest in a long line of superb dark/weird horrific titles from ChiZine Publications, Wild Fell by Michael Rowe tells the tale of the house of the title on Ontario’s Blackmore Island, site of a tragic drowning that has haunted the local town of Alvina, and of other more mysterious events deeper in the past. The book’s protagonist, Jameson Browning, purchases the house partly as a refuge from his own ghosts, only to find, sure enough, that other and worse ones await him there.
The novel was a finalist for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award, and Clive Barker, no less, has declared that: “this is a novel for lovers of fine storytelling; a book that evokes terrors both ancient and modern and delivers us to a place of profound fear where the past and present intersect, conjuring a dark world where the dead have our faces. Or none at all. In short, Wild Fell is supernatural fiction of the highest order.”
I just wish I could be as positive. Not that Barker is wrong when he says that this is a novel for lovers of fine storytelling, in a very traditional sense. The prose is beautifully balanced and crafted. But there’s an awful lot of the storytelling. Much of the middle of the book is devoted to the details of the narrator’s life – well evoked, but just straightforward background. And yes, the narrative comes to life at the end in a denouement that puts the whole preceding buildup into a very different context, with a far more sinister (and satisfying) rationale, but an awful lot of words have already gone by by then. And the contrast with what already went by comes perilously close to making the finale not horrific but incredible. Only the quality of Rowe’s prose pulls it back from the brink.
Perhaps it’s just me and I have a problem with this style of narrative, even when it neatly subverts itself by the end. See what Laird Barron, for instance, does with a similar lacustrine theme in “The Redfield Girls,” part of his third collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All – which incidentally has also been lauded for its cross-gender writing. Or what Adam Nevill does with the appalling Red House in House of Small Shadows. These and others typify what’s being done in modern dark fiction, where contemporary writers seem able to switch from mundane to extraordinary without a skipped beat. Wild Fell reads like something from a generation earlier. Still, readers who take Peter Straub’s Ghost Story as their touchstone of the ideal horror tale shouldn’t hesitate.