Friday, December 08, 2006
Book: Mean acres.
Whatever faults it may possess, Scott Nicholson’s over-stuffed horror novel, The Farm, cannot be accused of a lack of imagination. Among the supernatural and occult phenomenon that packs the book, including pagan sacrifices, a headless housewife ghost, a blood-thirsty serial killer scarecrow, and an undead Methodist preacher on the prowl for souls, The Farm also gives the reader a vast herd of man-eating goats.
Seriously. Man-eating goats.
What rural New England is to Stephen King, the haint-saturated and God-haunted hills of the North Carolina Appalachians are to Scott Nicholson and, in this novel, he returns to that familiar setting. The Farm tells the story of Katy and Jett, a remarried mother of one and her Goth teen off-spring. After the collapse of his first marriage, Katy left the big city to marry the intellectual and charismatic, but emotionally distant Gordon, a professor of religion specializing in the fading local Christian traditions. Katy hopes the move to Gordon’s isolated mountain farm will give her a fresh start and be good for her trouble prone daughter. For Jett, whose style is move Cure than Clampett, Gordon’s farm, located outside the tiny mountain town of Solom, might as well be on the moon. Her fashionably gothic clothes make her a target for bullying at school and her rebel attitude clashs with Gordon’s old-school mountain bred Christianity.
As if these troubles weren’t enough, Jett runs face to face with the Circuit Rider, star of several local spook stories and the undead ancestor of her new stepfather. According to the locals, the Circuit Rider was a Methodist minister given to pagan-leaning habits like animal sacrifice. Jealous of his local popularity and the unsavory and heathenish manner in which he gets right with Jesus, ministers from three local churches did the Christian thing: ambushed him on his rounds and slew him. Then they divided his body among them. Each church buried a third of the man in its cemetery. Now, for your regular traveling clergyman, that would have been enough to ensure that his worldly ministry was ended. The Circuit Rider, however, continues to make his rounds. Every few years, he makes an appearance in the hills around Solom, finds some unlucky person, and claims their soul. This is especially bad luck as, once you're claimed by the Rider, you're doomed to remain a specter in this world, appearing whenever the Rider does, acting as a harbinger of his arrival.
Katy’s adjustment doesn’t go any better. She quickly finds her husband is alternately overbearing and isolating. Living with the too real memories of his deceased wife would be bad enough (Gordon can only fulfill his marital obligations if he pretends Katy is Rebecca, his departed dear), it seems as if she still haunts the house. To Jett’s horror and Katy’s confusion, Katy begins to adapt Rebecca’s ways, becoming the ghost that seems to haunt her.
Oh, and then there’s that living scarecrow stalking the forests and fields of Solom, cutting down the town’s citizens with it scythe. And the herds of goats with an unnatural taste for meat . . .
With The Farm, Nicholson has constructed a distinctly Southern horror tale that manages to wind its way through a tangle of subplots with snap and suspense, before bringing everything together at the last second. The dialogue is witty, if sometimes a bit too clever to be believable. The characters are well drawn and Nicholson’s use of strong images always rises to the needs of his story. He’s even able to pull off his most questionable artistic decision and make the killer goats of Solom seem genuinely creepy.
If anything, the books suffers from an excess of good stuff. The haunted house, the killer scarecrow, the Rider, the goats – any one or two of which would have been sufficient to hang a story on – all struggle for the reader’s attention. As it is, the Rider and the goats get the most pages. The ghost of Rebecca ultimately serves as a sort of exposition device and the scarecrow, a worthy invention that deserved more use, gets only a handful of brief appearances. This wealth of material also strains Nicholson’s narrative structure. As the story winds down, Nicholson has to rely on a handful of deus ex machina contrivances to get all of his characters were they need to be for their final confrontation. But these are minor complaints that never overwhelm the novel.
You can get The Farm wherever you score your readables. It is published by Pinnacle and will cost you about seven Washingtons.