Any author who wants to write horror has a decision to make. Supernatural? Splatter? Is this horror featuring men with rusty weapons who chase down helpless people, or is this a ghost story by a campfire? Is there a cosmic battle driving humans mad? Is there a curse? A serial killer? A hook hand? Revenants? Demons?
Samantha Hunt’s third novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is a horror story, though the kind of horror that tends to bob and weave with the reader. This review will be split, like a cloven hoof. I will speak in vague generalities for about five paragraphs, and then I will dig into spoiler territory. This is a book that relies on surprise and plot twist, so if you haven’t read it, and would like to, be warned.
Mr. Splitfoot is a rural Northern Gothic—which is basically a southern gothic but with more snow and less risk of gator attack. The story unfolds in two threads. In the past (about 15 years ago) Ruth and Nat are growing up unhappily in a foster home called Love of Christ!, which is run by a religious fanatic who takes in as many kids as he can and squirrels the state money away. He has a tricked out monster truck, but the kids all wear patchy, old-fashioned clothing, and are forced to attend “church” in a barn. Church, as led by Father Arthur, is mostly about teaching the kids that Jews, Mormons, Catholics, and anyone who isn’t white, are not to be trusted. Father Arthur’s wife, the Mother, occasionally works, but mostly either stays in bed with mysterious illness, or screws around on Father Arthur when the illnesses abate. Nat speaks to the dead. Ruth assists him. They end up falling in with a man named Mr. Bell, who becomes their manager and attempts a Great Awakening 5.0 in 1990s Upstate New York.
Years later, Cora, Ruth’s niece, discovers that she’s pregnant. The father is not exactly partner material. Right when Cora’s at her lowest ebb, Ruth shows up and takes the young woman on a journey (mostly on foot) across New York’s Burned-Over District, possibly to prepare her for motherhood, possibly to rescue her from her ex, possibly just cause she’s crazy. Cora finds herself detaching from the modern world more and more with each mile, all the while wondering how she can possibly bring a life into the world.
The past and the present tangle in alternating chapters, until they collapse together completely toward the end of the book. Along the way the characters lead and fall prey to cults; discuss UFOs and Carl Sagan; interrogate the mysteries of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints; find meteorite strike sites; and engage in an ongoing debate between a spiritual worldview and a material one. This book is dark and deep, and wrestles with profound questions, and is not afraid to poke into some terrible corners of the human psyche. But it’s also about love, in the least cheesy way I can imagine. It’s about motherhood in a way that acknowledges that motherhood often involves a squalling beast clawing its way out of its host body, and that it can also bring great joy, and that not all mothers are biological, and that biological mothers can be fuck-ups but still love, and that mothers of many kinds can be monsters.
It’s also about ghosts, and belief in ghosts—you can say as often as you want to that you don’t believe in ghosts, but that won’t stop you from becoming one. At the very least, someday you and me and everyone we know will be memories repeated by others, until those people are also memories, repeated by people we’ve never met. (Personally I’m planning to become an actual ghost and stay in New York, because I can’t imagine living anywhere else, even after I’m dead.) Mr. Splitfoot meditates on the many ways that the dead can haunt the living.
I’m still not sure what I think of this book. On the one hand I liked a huge amount of it, and I’m still thinking about it. I’m not a person who uses phrases like “luminous prose”—but this prose is luminous AF:
An hour later, near Lasher Creek, meteorite found in 1948, Ruth sees a sign for a motor lodge. Underneath the words there’s a depiction of a bosomy woman, dressed in a hula skirt, shaking it underneath a limbo bar, though there’s nothing else Hawaiian about the place. It looks like a cinder block.
* * *
I have to move quickly to follow Sheresa. The path is amniotic, dark, humid, and inviting. I lose up and down, left and right. I navigate by listening to her feet. I break the back of a twig underfoot. Up ahead there’s light. Safe haven. Sheresa’s spreading a blanket beneath a weeping tree on the shore of a river. It’s a wide stretch of the canal. Torches, lanterns, and candles glow, lights float on the water. It’s a very quiet party. Everyone assembled keeps his voice low. I worry I’ve stumbled into some witches’ coven.
* * *
Ruth pulls her long dress tight across bent knees. She doesn’t even know enough about mothers to fabricate a good one. Her idea of of a mother is like a non-dead person’s idea of heaven.It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she’s got now. “I’m just saying, wherever she is, she doesn’t stink.”
* * *
Ruth sits on one couch with Nat beside her. The walls are brain-colored.
At the same time there is a plot twist that I figured out pretty early—and I’m still wondering whether the book would have been even stronger if it was simply more direct from the start.
And from here on, we’re in spoiler country.
The twist being that in the modern narrative Ruth is already dead. It’s Ruth’s ghost who is walking her still-living niece, Cora, through the hills and forests of New York, retracing her own past in an attempt to give Cora the life she didn’t get to have. I was suspecting this early on, but it becomes obvious when Ruth and Cora crash right into a Vanishing Hitchhiker tale. Cora is so rattled at finding a crashed car and a mangled dead man that she doesn’t fully engage with the unharmed young woman who climbs out of the wreck and insists she needs to get home or mother will worry. Cora doesn’t seem to connect that she herself told her ex a variant of this tale a few months earlier, or that the girl walks into a hotel room and never walks back out. It’s all just there for the reader to notice. Cora and Ruth stay at the hotel for a night, Ruth disappears, and Cora befriends the manager who informs her that it’s a waystation for ghosts. Cora doesn’t realize it, but it becomes clear that everyone she’s interacting with is long dead. But again this isn’t directly stated. The pair are being followed by a ghost, Cora encounters another, and then, as the two narratives come together at the end of the book, we learn that Ruth has been dead the whole time, which in a way works incredibly well. The structure of the book is flawless, as Ruth past and Cora’s present collide over the last 100 pages, until Cora’s child’s birth is beginning in chapters cut into the chapters of Ruth’s death. It’s gorgeous.
But at the same time the part of me that reads more “genre” fiction was wondering how the book would have played if Ruth’s state of being was apparent from the outset. If this was more a Laura Moon situation than a Sixth Sense situation, basically. What does it mean that the supernatural part of the book is withheld until we’re 200 pages in?
I kept coming back to two other books I’ve read recently, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling and John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. Both books also have extremely acute senses of place: The Changeling digs into the meat that hides under New York City’s veneer of civilization, while Universal Harvester draws its horror from corn fields and endless prairie. But The Changeling commits to supernatural horror, early on, and is marketed as a horror story. I went into it knowing that despite the realism of the first third, otherworldly shit was chipping away at every day reality. Universal Harvester never fully goes supernatural. It hints at a supernatural horror at its heart, but it never quite puts that on the page, and I came away from the book thinking that there was a cosmic battle between good and evil being fought, but that we, the readers, only had access to what the human pawns were able to understand.
In both cases the protagonists realize they’re in horror stories at a certain point, and it changes the way they think and make choices. But in Mr. Splitfoot, Cora’s mind rejects direct evidence time and again, and she never really behaves like a person being confronted with the shock of the supernatural. She meditates on the loss of her cellphone, and here Hunt does what all good modern horror writers do, and comes up with a reason that cell service doesn’t work. In this case, the revenant “drops” the phone, and it shatters, and that’s it. Cora calls home on landlines a few times, but these calls are so traumatic, and she begins to feel so untethered to the world, that she just stops reaching back into her old life.
This allows Hunt to meditate on a couple of other obsessions: the fragmentation of the human mind via the internet. (She actually wrote parts of Mr. Splitfoot in her car, one of the few places where she could guarantee solitutde and, if she drove far enough, disconnection from the web.) When we meet Cora she spends her days mindlessly surfing the internet, and has addled herself so much that when she tells a variant on the Ghostly Hitchhiker story she doesn’t even seem to realize that it’s an old, well-worn tale. But after a few days on the road with Ruth:
I’m smarter now that my smartphone is gone. I can pay attention in a different way. I know what strangers are thinking. I know when a town is coming before it comes because the pollution changes a half mile out. There’s a thickness to the air like when you bring the palms of your hands toward one another. It’s not magic. It’s just attention and observation.
In addition to serving horror’s needs by cutting off Cora’s ability to call for help, this also allows Hunt to show us the natural world, to let her pair of walkers fall into a rhythm guided by the sun and by their bodies needs. IT allows her to chart Cora’s growing belly without checking in on WebMD. It allows Cora to receive folk medicine and folktales from people she meets at gas stations and Walmarts. It also pokes all sorts of holes in the idea that modern life is fundamentally different from all that’s come before it. Without the internet life bounces back to: food, shelter, warmth, a loved one’s hand feeling when the baby kicks, watching the sky for rain, hoping that noise wasn’t a bear.
Mr. Splitfoot is also a story about con artists, and it pivots endlessly on the idea of sucker-dom. I was thinking about that in particular this week, since people in my own various feeds kept sharing variations on “April Fool’s Day is the only day of the year when people think critically about what they see on the internet.” It’s become popular over the last two years to talk about how the internet particularly social media, have proven to be boons to all sorts of hucksters. With Photoshop and forwarded chain emails and trending hashtags, anyone, can say anything, about any topic, and at least a portion of reddit, plus all of your aunt’s Facebook friends, will swallow it. Doesn’t matter what “it” is. Anything can be in the suitcase, anyone can be behind the curtain, and conspiracy theories can spread so easily, and be so ouroborosian, that anyone attempting to disprove them will just seem like part of the conspiracy.
I have to admit, here, in the privacy of the internet, that in the last year I have been closer to true despair over the state of humanity than I have ever been.
And this book has actually helped with that. Because Hunt reminds us that there is a longstanding tradition of con men, charlatans, snake oil salesmen, fake mediums, cult leaders, entire lineages of people who would do and say anything to separate people from their money (or pretty young followers from their underthings) and Americans, in their desperation for belief and meaning, will swallow lies until they choke. Possibly this is an odd thing to find hope in? But Hunt treats her con artists so gently, she allows you to love people even as messed up as Father Arthur. She allows you to find empathy with a later, darker cult leader. She shows you faith refracted from many angles, and allows you to see that cults tend to be born from loneliness. She riffs on the Fox Sisters and Joseph Smith and the Oneida Community, but she doesn’t ask you to laugh at them. She doesn’t dismiss them. She gives you characters who can only find peace in belief, and characters who would rather die than be suckered, but there isn’t any single right answer, just more questions. There’s always another bend in the path, and truth might be just through these trees.