There is more than one kind of devil in this world. The kind that arrives out of the blue like a summer thunderstorm, severe, inescapable, and over in a flash. The kind that lives on the edge of town, seeping their poisonous hate into the groundwater, gradually destroying everything in their radius. The kind that seems innocent enough until your throat is already slashed, a mouth full of kind words spoken over sharp teeth.
Short story writer Adrianne Harun pulls the devil out of the realm of fantasy and into the real world with her debut novel A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain.
In an isolated, backwater mountain town deep in British Columbia logging country, aboriginal girls are going missing and nobody is doing anything about it. Highway 16, the Highway of Tears, rends its way through the unnamed Canadian town at the heart of Harun’s novel, a road that brings in more violence and chaos than it does financial windfall from the logging industry. The murders hang over Leo, Ursie, Bryan, Tessa, and Jackie like an unspoken threat. The teenagers—half First Nations, half white, all angst and gritty frustration—know they’re trapped in their dead end town, and don’t waste time fretting over it. They wait out the oppressive summer heat and never ending boredom by working low-skill jobs and hanging out at an abandoned dump on the edge of town.
The Nagle brothers and Gerald Flacker run the underside of the town. Flacker makes meth and moonshine, and the Nagles act as his enforcers. Two young children and their drug-addled mother suffer the most from Flacker’s cruelties, but the townsfolk are too afraid or too concerned with their own calamities to intervene. The other looming danger comes from the loggers. Every so often they flee the camps and descend on the town like locusts, bringing bursts of violence and disaster, then returning to the trees. The town depends on the logging industry and therefore tolerates their misbehavior. Flacker and the Nagle brothers aren’t nearly as vital, therefore they force their importance through spectacular brutality.
And then, out of nowhere, Hana Swann appears in their lives. She attaches herself to Jackie like a cat toying with a mouse. Her bone white skin and lilting voice are almost ethereal in their eerie beauty, blinding the kids to the darkness swirling around her. The same time Hana strolls into the logging camp, Keven Seven appears in town. He claims to be a magician of sorts, though the tricks he performs are more than simple sleight of hand. And then there’s the man called Clark who wanders down out of the forest with a wicked grin and a chthonic aura. Hana enchants Jackie, Keven enthralls Ursie, and Clark uses Markus Nagle like a meat puppet. Is Hana a harbinger of doom, an extension of a much greater evil, or simply a lonely girl who leaves discord in her wake? Is Keven Hana’s bitter ex or a vortex of bewitching compulsion? Is Clark the man in tan jacket or a figment of Markus’ drunken imagination?
Tribal magic runs through the town’s blood, and Leo can barely keep track of what is legend and what is truth. His dying Uncle Lud passes stories on to his nephew in a desperate attempt to keep the tradition alive. Leo’s mother, her cousin Trudy, and Ursie’s aunt Madeline are less attuned to the spirit world, but still feel its warnings. As Keven, Hana, and Clark lay waste to the lives of everyone they come in contact with, and Flacker and the Nagles set their sights on the teenagers, a fire erupts in the forest, driving out the loggers and suffocating the townsfolk. Like any good fairy tale, love is the key to battling evil, but the test will be if the love the five kids have for each other, both platonic and romantic, is enough to take on villains as powerful as these.
Mountain is a haunting and evocative piece of work. The trials the teenagers suffer through are peppered with gothic folklore. Her background in short stories makes several appearances here, with short fables cutting into the main story. They’re not so much interstitials or bookends but tales that function as myths, present acts, and foreshadowing. In an interview, she spoke of how she cut out a lot of those tales in order to make the main story arc flow better. If Harun ever releases them, I’ll be first in line with a wad of bills in hand. In all honesty, I think I liked them better than the main story.
The only negative about Mountain, is that, at times, it feels like too much. There are too many plots in the story, and each one is framed in such a way to make it feel like the “main” story. Each kid gets a major plot point, but with each introduction of a new plot the previous one is suddenly dropped. It’s a little difficult to talk about without spoiling anything, but several characters who Harun poses as a key figure suddenly vanish (literally and literarily) and become devolve into devices to push the story forward. Leo is ostensibly our “hero,” as he tells the story through his POV, but every other character gets a turn at the wheel as well, albeit under third person narrative. I also didn’t care for the denouement. It felt unnecessary and a wee bit undeserved, like what J.K. Rowling did at the resolution of the Harry Potter series. I get the desire to insist on such an ending, but it sucked a lot of the force out of the novel.
A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is an intense novel, full of foreboding thoughts and impending doom. It reminds me a little of Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali. Both are practically dripping with ever-present dread and looming horror. Both have a strong mystical element, with their magic systems behaving more like destructive forces of nature than purely malevolent beings (chaos and anarchy vs. mischief and evil). And both have young men dragged into terrible situations to combat an undefeatable enemy on an unknowable playing field. But where Kali buries the reader in horror after grim horror and never lets up, Mountain softens its blow. Kali ends its tale by smashing the reader’s head in with the book; Mountain lets the reader close the book, set it on the table, and feel the goosebumps ease. I’ll let you decide which is the better circumstance.
A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is available now from Viking Penguin
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.