Review: Wild Fell: A Ghost Story, by Michael Rowe

wild-fell-jacket>>Published: December 2013

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

But in this case, by candlelight, in spite of the veneer of ducal hauteur in this portrait of the laird of Wild Fell, the face rendered here was the face of a monster.

The surface of the painting had been slashed with some kind of long, sharp instrument. There were no jagged edges; rather the cuts appeared to have been made almost lovingly, as though the vandal in question had taken his or her time and profoundly enjoyed the sensation of carving Alexander Blackmore’s face into strips.

I shuddered and turned the portrait away from me, facing it against the side of the crate. At that moment, a cold draft wafted through the basement, and I distinctly heard a soft sigh from the darkness behind me. The flame of my candle flickered, then went out. I heard something behind the locked third door, something that sounded like a piece of furniture being dragged across a stone floor.

I didn’t wait for the scraping sound to repeat itself. I turned tail and stumbled as fast as I could back through the basement. When I found the stairs, I took them three at a time, as though the light from the kitchen windows was oxygen and I had been buried alive in the dark.

***

The town of Alvina, Ontario, some 3,000 souls strong, is a quaint, summer destination with, like so many towns of its ilk, a Main Street, a busy season, and a dark history shrouded in secrets and death.

Wild Fell opens in 1960, with a pair of young teenage lovers: Sean “Moose” Schwartz and Brenda Egan. The two Alvina residents go for a late drive one night, winding up on the shore of Devil’s Lake near Blackmore Island where, in glorious horror fashion, they almost immediately start making out. Of course, being a horror story, their make-out session results in nothing good (save for the hauntingly beautiful shroud of moths on page 22).

Following this extended prologue, the novel switches gears—and perspectives—and we’re introduced to Wild Fell’s true protagonist, the sympathetic, forty-year-old divorcé and former English teacher Jameson Browning. Though we’re introduced to Jameson as an adult, the narrative quickly jumps back in time to 1971, where we see him as a young boy, before progressing through the steps leading back to adulthood. Jameson, however, isn’t a typical boy; he’s shy and mistrustful of other boys his age. His only real friend is Lucinda “Hank” Brevard, a tomboy and a source of frustration for Jameson’s über-conservative mother. Together, Jameson and Hank are balanced in their traditional gender-role inversion—she being the more masculine of the two, and he a delicate flower of a child, a personality reflected more in his soft-hearted father than his icy, cruel mother.

Beyond Hank, Jameson confides in his “mirror pal” whom he imagines as his self externalized. It isn’t long, however, before imaginary mirror pal becomes not-so imaginary Amanda, a girl—an apparition—who appears one day in the mirror in Jameson’s bedroom and speaks to him in his own voice. Though seemingly benign at first, it isn’t until Jameson’s new bike is stolen from him by an older bully that he gets his first taste of the dark power that has visited him in the guise of a young girl.

As we return to Jameson the adult, post-divorce, post-accident which has left him with a considerable amount of disposable cash, we see a man who has forgotten much of his past—including the dangerous apparition in his mirror—and who is in need of something to act as a distraction from his current life of loneliness and concern over his father, who is now suffering with Alzheimer’s. On impulse, Jameson purchases, sight unseen, the historic house Wild Fell on Blackmore Island, on sale for a steal of a price, with every intention of turning it into a summer bed and breakfast. It isn’t long, however, before Jameson’s past, and indeed the history of Blackmore Island itself, clambers to the surface once more.

As was the case with 2011’s Enter, Night, which upended the vampire mould in interesting and unexpected ways, author Michael Rowe offers up a new type of ghost story in Wild Fell. Absent from Jameson and Amanda’s story are things like rattling chains and spectres passing through walls, somehow leaving ectoplasmic residue on surfaces. In place of these tropes, the author has injected the narrative with psychological unrest and confusion, and layers of misdirection, beginning with the division between the prologue and the rest of the novel.

Like Enter, Night, which opened with a multi-chapter prologue of sorts, Wild Fell begins with a story so complete and tonally different from what’s to come that it feels like one story nested inside another. This feeling is increased when, upon being introduced to Jameson, the narrative switches from third-person to first. Beyond simply shifting perspective, though, the overall tone of the writing changes as well. The prologue is a disturbing, sexy, and heavily atmospheric scene that simultaneously plays to the expectation of doomed teenage lovers while at the same time carving the outline of its own unique mythology—an outline that is later filled in by Jameson’s more elegantly written, almost provincial tale. Unlike Enter, Night, in which I felt the length and pacing of the prologue detracted somewhat from the larger tale that followed, the opening to Wild Fell feels like an essential, swiftly-told kernel around which Jameson’s future and fate are determined.

As previously stated, much of Wild Fell is written with a careful elegance that really sells the delicate nature of Jameson’s personality—one that is as at odds with the brashness of the boys at camp in his youth as it is with his own mother, and later on, his wife, Ame. While Hank is in some ways equally brash, the connection they share, forged in childhood, is a near-perfect example of brotherly love. In fact, it is the relationships between Jameson and Hank, and Jameson and his father that provide Wild Fell with its emotional core, as well as its greatest ammunition for tragedy.

Going a step further, Rowe nails the discomforting gulf in the parent/child dynamic across both Jameson’s parents, achieving a hateful, mendacious character in Jameson’s mother, a truly horrid, heartless person (and through her actions, is placed right up there with the deplorable Lemmy Drinkwater and his dog fighting ways from Craig Davidson’s Cataract City). When contrasted with Jameson’s father, who is portrayed as about as loving and caring as a father could be, her actions and mannerisms seem that much more despicable. If there were ever a woman unfit for motherhood…

The overall narrative to Wild Fell doesn’t hinge on an elaborate plot or attempt rewrite the rules of the genre so much as it simply infuses it with a strong dose of character and a legitimate sense of history—Jameson’s history, and that of Blackmore Island. The connection between Jameson and Amanda, the girl in the mirror, is not so much the heart of the protagonist’s arc, as it might be in a lesser novel, but the twisting, turning knife boring a hole through his very finely tuned exterior. As carefully manicured a personality as Jameson has, it’s rather tightly wound around itself, primed to snap as it did one fateful day as a child in the back of a bus when he nearly beat another boy half to death over the life of his pet turtle, Manitou. In that sense, there’s an argument to be made that Wild Fell is equally about psychological disturbances as it is supernatural ones.

Before going any further, I must warn readers that the rest of this review will dive fairly heavily into spoilers as I try to unravel the book’s ending. Should you wish to cut yourself off now and actually read it for yourself, know that I wholeheartedly recommend this book—Rowe’s seemingly small and intimate ghost story is an unsettling delight from start to finish.

For those of you still with me, here we go.

I’m not entirely sure what I trust regarding certain late-novel revelations, specifically those involving Jameson’s father and the possibility of molestation. There are layers of misdirection at work in Wild Fell, be they from sincere psychological unrest brought on by Amanda’s presence or by the burying and subsequent unearthing of past trauma. I know at first I was utterly indignant towards the possibility that Jameson’s father, who’d been so lovingly crafted as a paragon of kind and proper parenting, could be such a terror. I’d grown so unexpectedly attached to what the elder Browning represented that any subversion of that image felt… Well, it felt like an attack. To that I say kudos—because I wouldn’t have felt so wounded had he not been so expertly designed to begin with.

I want to say that I believe Amanda was lying in an attempt to draw another lonely soul to Blackmore Island to keep for herself, but two things keep me wondering just how much of the novel was actually a ghost story and how much of it was endemic of one man’s psychological break. The first is the breadth of the glamour cast over Jameson’s sight: not only does he not see what Wild Fell truly looks like, but his vision of the travel agency in its original state, and the resurrection of Velnette Fowler, point to something greater—to either psychological misdirection or possession of a sort, where Amanda is so tightly linked to his mind and soul that he sees only the memories and images she wants him to see. The second possibility is revealed in a small, seemingly innocuous section of dialogue on page 31:

We had no secrets from each other, except for the one I kept: I never told Hank about Amanda, the little girl who lived in my mirror, the little girl who had my face and spoke in my voice, but who was someone else entirely.

Amanda makes her first appearance prior to the night that Jameson’s father spends in bed comforting his son—the same scene later perverted by Amanda, recounting to the adult Jameson the things he (possibly) buried in order to maintain his sanity. This to me indicates two divergent possibilities: that either Amanda was conjured by Jameson’s mind as a response to previous molestation, and her supernatural capabilities for vengeance are in fact intended to reflect the hatred Jameson feels but refuses to acknowledge toward his father; or that Amanda sees the closeness between Jameson and his father and decides the only way to bring Jameson over, eventually, to her reality is to distort his own with lies and misdirection aimed at destroying the only positive familial relationship he has. In the former, Amanda is a defense mechanism through which Jameson has learned to cope; in the latter, she’s little more than a vengeful spirit re-experiencing the hatred she felt toward her own sexually abusive father by twisting Jameson’s view of his.

That these possibilities are to me equally viable is an example of Wild Fell’s strengths. This novel is a layered, expertly crafted piece of entertainment, and so much more than just another ghost story.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Wild Fell: A Ghost Story, by Michael Rowe

  1. Ooooo, This sounds terrific. And I hadn’t noted it, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. There are parts of your post that I let my eyes skip across because I don’t want to know some of those bits before I meet them on the page, but I know if I had already read the book that I would want to read those parts too – perhaps most of all. This novel – and his earlier – are solidly on my TBR now.

    • Good call, side-stepping the spoilery bits of my reviews. I prefer to dive as deep as I can into the books that really stay with me, which usually means going beyond just basic plot details and summaries, but suffice it to say this title is more than worth your time!

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