Title: Those Across the River
Author: Christopher Buehlman
Published: September 2011 by Ace Books, a division of Penguin USA
Source: Review copy received from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 7/10
It’s the summer of 1935 and Frank Nichols and his fiancée Eudora move into a house in Whitbrow, a parochial, rural town in the American south. Frank inherited the house from his aunt, who warned him to sell it because “there is bad blood here, and it is against you”. Frank would have heeded her warning, but after ruining his career as a history professor and spending months unemployed, living with Eudora in his brother’s house, the inheritance looks like a good opportunity rather than the disaster you know it’s going to be.
Living off his inheritance money and Eudora’s salary as a school teacher, Frank decides to spend his time writing a book about his great-grandfather, Lucien Savoyard, an army General who tortured and killed his slaves for sport until they “revolted and murdered him, as well as his wife and overseers. And the dogs they used to chase them with. And the horses. They chopped them all up and put them in a common pit and burned them.” The remains of Savoyard’s plantation lie across the river that runs alongside Whitbrow, but none of the townspeople are willing to take help Frank find it. There are stories about evil things across the river, and no one wants to find out if they’re true.
Dark family secrets, the stain of evil, an unknown threat beyond a border that no one will cross (except the protagonist), a terrible danger in a small, isolated town – there’s nothing particularly new here, or about “those across the river” when you find out what they are, but none of that stopped this from being a very scary book. It takes a while to get going, but once strange and disturbing things start happening and the gruesome deaths began, it creeped the hell out of me. There is something very primal about the horror that Buehlman evokes – a threat of ugly, filthy violence driven by base desires and indiscriminate hatred. It’s terrifying in its blunt savagery.
The town of Whitbrow, where most of the novel is set, provides a nice set-up for the horrors to come. It’s the kind of quiet small town that I find inherently unsettling because of its religious fervour, lack of education and unabashed racism. For the most part the residents are friendly, but when a black man or vagrant walks into town, the tension is palpable. Even Frank, our supposedly sophisticated history professor, struggles to stop himself using the word “nigger” at times. Other men spit the word out very readily.
The backwardness of the town bothers Frank at first. When he goes to the general store and can’t find any wine, he’s told that “We in Morgan County here. All we drink is the blood of the Redeemer.” Another resident, Martin Cranmer, avoids his neighbours because he can’t stand how dull and provincial they are:
“No offense, but most of the God-fearing folk around here have trouble reading a can of soup. I mean, they’ll whip your biscuits in a game of checkers at the general store, and most of them can quote Genesis and Exodus alright, but chess is right out. The most political they ever got was when half of them wrote letters to Sears and Roebuck when they switched the catalog to glossy paper.” “Why did they care?”
“Because they had to go back to wiping their asses with corn.”
Buehlman does a skilful job of portraying the town and its people, particularly that unique Southern humour and manner of speaking. It’s a good thing that he does it so well, since the first half or so is devoted to setting up the characters and the location without moving the plot forward very much. You might find this slow-going at times but it’s worth it to feel the rush when the pace picks up and the horror hits you at full force. When I switched off the lights and went to bed after a few hours spent reading this I made a terrible cliché of myself by jumping at my own shadow.
Sadly, the ending is a bit of a let down because it doesn’t quite live up to the preceding parts, but by then I had to admit that the novel had already done its job by scaring the hell out of me. On the whole, it’s a good, quick horror read, well-written and solidly constructed. It can get pretty gory at times, but not gratuitously so, and it doesn’t rely on gore alone to be scary. Recommended.