Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Books: Every breath you don't take.

Bareneed, Newfoundland, might seem like a picturesque vacation spot. Somewhat isolated from the neighboring towns, Bareneed is one of those fishing villages where time seems to have stood still. For centuries, locals have grown up near the rough and unpredictable sea and cultivated that rustic stocism city folk consider the wisdom of the laborer. Local lore and customs have been passed down from generation to generation. There's something raw and essential bout life in Bareneed.

Unfortunately, Bareneed is far from a working-class paradise. The Canadian government, citing political and environmental concerns, shut down the local fish processing plants and placed bans on several of the town's most lucrative forms of fishing. The economic fallout has been devastating.

And, of course, there's the mermaids, the murderous ghosts, a mysterious and fatal epidemic, fairies, military quarantines, giant squid, the sea giving up its dead by spewing forth perfectly the preserved bodies of those lost to the depths over the past couple hundred years, dark prophecies, a monster tsunami, and an albino shark with an unidentified head in its jaws.

Tough times all around.

Bareneed is the evocative setting of Kenneth J. Harvey's 2003 darkly fantastical novel: The Town That Forgot How to Breath. The story follows several different characters, both residents and vacationers, as the town faces a supernatural disaster that literally threatens to wipe Bareneed off the face of the map.

The story begins when a local man, a recluse, falls ill with a mysterious disease that causes the victim to simply stop breathing. As Bareneed's local doctor attempts to make sense of this illogical, but rapidly spreading epidemic, curious bodies begin washing up on shore. These corpses, some with clothes and personal items dating back to the 1700s, are perfectly preserved. And these bodies aren't the only curiosities behind hauled up out of the deep. Local fishermen begin pulling impossible, legendary creatures out of the surf. Locals catch glimpses of mermaids, hydras, and what might well be the kraken gliding off the coast. Meanwhile, a reclusive local artist is tormented by the restless ghost of her daughter. The daughter, who was killed years ago when her father kidnapped her and then drowned her in the ocean, has returned, apparently in an effort to convince her mother to join her on the other side. And, if she's going to come over, why not bring a few new playmates along too? The more the merrier.

Over the course of six long days, these stories and several others will intertwine and build to a suitably catastrophic climax.

Harvey's novel is truly one of the more curious additions to genre: it clearly belongs in the subgenre of small town terror, popularized by King and others, but it innovates the form through adopting the logic of legends and folk tales, creating something that occasionally verges on the hallucinatory or mythic. The book oscillates from rigorously observed characterizations and descriptions to archetypal behavior and surrealism. This bizarre balancing act between realism and self-aware literariness is underscored by a curiously fascinating stylistic quirk Harvey has: sometimes he allows one of his own metaphors to suddenly “materialize” within the fictional world he's describing. For example, at one point Harvey describes the sound of a pop song coming through a protagonist's car radio as so sugary it coats the character's teeth. This would be a perfectly descriptive metaphor for the over produced sludge of modern pop R&B, but what happens immediately after Harvey delivers this metaphor is interesting. The character takes the sleeve of his shirts and wipes his teeth. Harvey's thinking about the world is modifying the world in real-time, so to speak. As drastic as this technique seems when I drag it out and isolate it as an example, it is actually pretty subtle in practice. I didn't notice myself at first, but it gives the whole novel this air of deep weirdness.

Harvey's tone is also unusual for a horror novelist. Some writers seem to take a sort of sadistic joy in putting their characters in harms way. Harvey, on the other hand, invests his horror novel with a sense of tragedy, rather than brutality. Unlike Lovecraft's tales (to which The Town has been compared) of a hostile universe, Harvey's universe is essentially good, but off-balance. His characters suffer because they the possibility of joy is real, only difficult to obtain in an ailing world.

Harvey's unique voice and sincerely involved sympathy with his characters are, unfortunately, somewhat undercut by a narrative structure that is weak at the beginning and end. It isn't unusual for these semi-apocalyptic horror novels to devolve somewhat at the end. When authors find that they've got to pull all their subplots together, account for a giant cast, and orchestrate a huge show stopping final act, the result is almost always a blur of events and walk-on appearances that the reader just agrees to ride out. This problem is so common, I suspect most readers now feel that the typically tangled conclusion is less a narrative failure than a feature of the subgenre. However, the slow build at the beginning is a bigger problem. I actually started this book about a month ago, but put it down because it wasn't grabbing me. I'm glad I gave it a second go, but I can imagine many less forgiving readers never get to the good stuff.

Narrative design issues aside, there's very good stuff in store for those with a little patience. Stylistically and thematically, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is a catch. You can snag a copy of your own paperback copy from Picador for 14 clams.


OCKerouac said...

Just what I needed, another book to read! Aside from the fact that I could end up burried under a stack of purchased-and-not-yet-cracked creepy fiction, after your write up I felt compelled to bust out the old credit card and let my mouse do the walking... I look forward to the read... Once I finally get to it... :)

Anonymous said...

That cover art looks suspiciously like a FSM influenced design..

Just sayin' ;)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Unfortunately I couldn't find the cover for the US edition. That cover's a little neater, in my opinion. Plus, it's got this weird raised "splatter" pattern of clear gloss that creates a bizarre texture all over the front, back, and spine. Gives the hands something to do while you're reading.