History professor Frank Nichols survived the First World War, if only just, but academia was something else again. When he derails his career by having an affair with a colleague’s exquisite wife, he finds himself unemployable in the midst of the Great Depression—broke, disgraced, forced to live in the spare room at his brother’s house.
The bright spot for Frank is that his lover, Eudora, has left her husband for him, and the two are madly in love. Still, the poverty and shared accommodations leave plenty of room for improvement, so it’s little wonder that the two jump at the chance to relocate to Whitbrow, Georgia, when Frank suddenly inherits a house there.
The scheme is simple: move South where nobody knows them and pretend they’re already married until Dora’s divorce comes through and they can get hitched. Frank will write a book about some appalling yet colorful Civil War history tied to his family land and—if the couple gets lucky—make enough of a name for himself as a historian to get himself out of the academic doghouse and back on the tenure track.
It is a fresh start, and even though the aunt who left Frank the house wrote him, as she was dying, to beg him to sell the place and never come near the town, come they do.
So begins Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River, a dark story about a haunted town, very much written in the tradition of Stephen King’s It or Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon. It’s a subgenre I love, and one that hasn’t had as much play since what used to be called horror fiction found itself drifting toward the sparkly paranormal fringes of Twilight.
In Whitbrow, the townspeople are keepers of a secret they don’t fully understand. The site of the plantation where Nichols’ ancestors lived before the Civil War ended was the site of a terrible massacre—or perhaps several. It is located across the river from town, and by unspoken agreement, nobody goes there. Every full moon, Whitbrow musters up a couple of pigs, holds a church social, and turn the animals loose in the woods. Naturally, none of the pigs is ever seen again.
Frank makes one attempt to find the old plantation site, and comes back smartly after a peculiar sighting of a creepy young man. It’s enough to persuade him that whatever is out there shouldn’t be disturbed.
And so the trouble begins not so much because Frank has come back to Georgia but because of the economic hardship plaguing Whitbrow’s citizens—the same trouble everyone is facing, nationwide. Pork is expensive, and nobody really remembers exactly what’s out there in the woods. Times are hard, the rationale goes. After a heated town meeting, Whitbrow decides its oddly pagan ritual is too pricey to maintain.
Naturally, the next full moon brings more to the town than the sound of cicadas and a romantic atmosphere.
Those Across the River is Frank’s story and he tells it in the clipped language of an ex-soldier; he’s an educated man, and the town, its people, and the tragedy that befalls them are etched into the reader’s imagination with stark, short phrases, broken by the occasional poetic stretch of description. (There’s a teaser here, if you’re curious.)
In the foreground of its story are two people newly in love and thoroughly in lust with each other. Behind them, stealing every scene, is the horror and death that unfolds after the pig ritual is cancelled. It’s a juxtaposition of extremes that works very nicely. Readers begin to see that Frank and Dora have felt doomed from the outset—that the fact that they began as adulterers has left them feeling just a bit guilty, as though their relationship is unsound and that maybe they aren’t even entitled to any happiness or permanence. They reach for it anyway, which is admirable.
Frank himself is a very sane, cautious and believable hero. He’s had one war, barely got out of it with his sanity intact, and he certainly isn’t looking for a new one. He isn’t one of those reckless horror guys in denial; he doesn’t go charging off into the woods again and again after his first unsettling brush with the supernatural. He wouldn’t go again at all, even to save his writing project. But when people start dying the need arises to go in, heavily armed and in force, with the rest of the town’s men.
And if Frank were a coward this would be a different book. But he’s a stand-up guy, and he does his duty.
As I read this book I found myself comparing it, time and again, to the King and Straub novels I’ve already mentioned. It is Buehlman’s first, and what I appreciated most about it was how the story comes together, in the end, like a well-stitched garment. It’s not ornate—he doesn’t overreach. The conclusion has a rightness and elegance that gives the novel’s outcome—both the answer to what’s across the river and the story of Frank and Dora’s great passion—a bittersweet and inevitable flavor. In this, he’s done better than King did with It, whose lurking monster could never quite live up to its several hundred pages of build-up. Still, I finished Those Across the River and found myself wanting just a hair more from it—a little more intensity in the description of Whitbrow, perhaps, a deeper sense of connection with the townsfolk, a slower walk through some of the worst clashes between Frank and the evil he discovers, and most of all a stronger tie to his family’s terrible past.
This isn’t to say this is a bad or disappointing book—far from it. It is, in fact, the best horror novel I’ve read in a long time. And my hope is that Buehlman’s just getting started, that the things I—perhaps unfairly, as as we readers are a greedy lot—wanted more of in this book are in even greater supply in whatever he writes next. There’s every reason to expect that will be the case, and I’ll be awaiting the next Buehlman book eagerly. In the meantime, I hope you all get and enjoy this one... especially if you’re a child of the Eighties feeling a bit of nostalgia for the scarefests of days gone by.