Henry Cadmus returns to one of his childhood homes – the island paradise of Santa Catalina – in order to find his mother. They only communicate about once a month, but Henry got worried after she moved back to the island without telling him and bought an expensive apartment in a gated community he knows she can’t afford. Since then, he’s been unable to contact her. With his wife Ruby and their toddler in tow, the trip to Santa Catalina is part investigation and part family holiday, but also a chance for Henry to face his demons and reconcile with his mother. Ruby – some kind of New Age goth hippy – is determined to document the journey by filming as much of it as she can.
Henry’s memories of the island are mostly violent and disturbing – he recalls seeing a jackal-headed woman on a balcony, dripping blood; being chased by a terrifying ‘butcher’; and hearing a gruesome story about a crazed bison stampeding through a school yard. When he returns, Henry continues to experience such monstrosities, and he’s concerned that something terrible might have happened to his mother. He gets increasingly anxious when he can’t find any way into her apartment complex and no one on the island is willing to help him.
The narrative is divided into alternating parts – Henry’s present-day struggle, and the account of his childhood on the island, which still baffles and unnerves him. The island is so beautiful that it’s hard to imagine anything sinister could be going on there, and yet it seems to be host to unspeakable horrors. As Henry slowly untangles the mysteries of his past and present, he eventually realises that he’s trapped within them.
I generally like all these sorts of things in horror stories – an adult confronting a traumatic childhood, creepy imagery, weird communities hiding terrible secrets – but Terminal Island was disappointing. It started out well enough, but even then things bothered me. Henry is a war veteran, but thanks to a car accident, he lost ten years of his memory and remembers nothing about the war except a few scraps. While I love the idea that he’s left with his childhood memories and nothing in between to cushion them, the war veteran thing felt a bit pointless.
Henry’s wife Ruby wants to document the whole story, but her reasons for doing so are vague and I couldn’t understand why Henry tolerated her whipping out the camera every time he seemed to be having an emotional moment or looking back on his past. Yes, she’s his wife, but she clearly intends to show this to people and the whole idea is so invasive.
I also don’t quite understand Henry’s issues with his mother. When we see her in the childhood narrative, she’s perfectly ordinary. A bit daffy and insecure perhaps, but she’s a struggling single mother who tends to trust people too easily, so it’s easy to forgive her flaws. She’s also willing to give up a good job and leave the island when Henry becomes so fearful of his schoolmates that he won’t leave the house. The blurb describes Henry’s mother as “the one he fears most”, and he’s clearly anxious about seeing again, but we don’t see this fearful mother on the page. All we get are Henry’s anxieties, which suggest that he doesn’t fear his mother so much as the guilt and memories she evokes. And that’s rather unfair, given what she did for him.
Anyway, I was willing to just accept this all for the sake of the story, which, as I said, is interesting enough at the start. There is plenty of intrigue, in both the present and past narratives – lots of gory sightings, moments of shocking cruelty, creepy rumours about animal sacrifice, things that don’t make sense. Henry and Ruby are particularly baffled by his mother’s apartment complex, Shady Isles. It’s an upmarket gated community supposedly designed to give residents total privacy, but Henry and Ruby can’t find any way to get in. No one is manning the gate. They can’t contact anyone inside to open the gate. Entry is possible by appointment, but they can’t make an appointment. Not surprisingly, Henry starts to come up with sinister theories about what the islanders might be doing to the vulnerable residents of Shady Isles.
He keeps digging and uncovers part of the conspiracy, but that turns out to be only a fraction of the truth. When the rest is eventually revealed, a single character delivers it in one giant chunk of exposition so clunky that I wondered if it was a ruse. But it’s not, and the novel gets seriously chaotic from then onwards. It makes sense in a hazy kind of way, but what I didn’t like is that all kinds of insanity suddenly descend on you, so it’s like you’re carried away on a tide blood, pain, perversion and batshit-craziness. I’ve experienced this kind of thing in horror before, so some fans of the genre might like it, but to me it feels like overkill, with the author screaming as he hurls buckets of gore around, pausing only for more passages of exposition.
It lacks… style. All the weird things Henry has seen on the island turn out not to have much significance beyond being part of the general craziness. If you were wondering, for example, why he saw a jackal-headed woman or a hovering bison head in the bushes, the answer is simply that the island and its residents are FUCKED UP, and not because they were there for some specific purpose.
I don’t know if I need to add this, but none of that scared me in the slightest. It just grossed me out, and for me that’s never enough when it comes to horror. I’d also hoped for something better from Walter Greatshell, since his sf novel Enormity was one of my favourite reads this year. Perhaps I’ll just try and forget about this one and hope that his earlier novel, Xombies (2004), is better.