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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Creepy What's-in-the-Woods Story Keeps Me Entertained This Halloween (Er, Christmas)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When they ruin any chance of career advancement in the state of Illinois by having a scandalous affair, college history professor Frank Nichols and teacher Dora Chambers retreat to the countryside. Frank has inherited a home in a small Georgia town called Whitbrow and, while it's a little isolated and creepy, living out in the boonies definitely beats bunking at Frank's brother's apartment. Even though his aunt urges Frank not to move in, to sell the place immediately, Frank dismisses her warnings as the ravings of a senile old woman. He wants to write a history of his family's plantation, which he knows was nearby. What better way to immerse himself in the project than to live on site? Besides, it's not like he and Dora have many other prospects.

Although Dora's divorce isn't quite finalized, the two pretend to be married (this being 1935 and all) and throw themselves into getting settled in. Since Frank's genetics make him a part of Whitbrow, the couple's welcomed in town with less suspicion than the average strangers would receive. The townspeople seem nice, if more than a little quirky, and Frank and Dora soon feel at home in Whitbrow. Which doesn't mean they understand all the strange local customs, especially the one where pigs - prime pork the poor folks in town could surely be eating instead of wasting - are sent into the forest as a kind of sacrifice. Although Frank and Dora question the whys behind this primitive tradition, no one will give them a straight answer. Something, they say, is in the woods. Something that requires payment in order to stay away.

Unconvinced of any danger and determined to find answers to his questions about his family's plantation, Frank ventures into the woods. Maybe it's just the heat playing tricks with his mind, but the forest certainly feels sinister. When Frank sees what he's sure is an apparition, he feels his past and present collide with brute force. He's the great-grandson of a cold-hearted plantation owner, who treated his slaves with sadistic cruelty - and whatever's lurking in the woods seems to know it. Which is a completely crazy thought, of course. Spooked, but more motivated than ever to figure out what's going on in Whitbrow, Frank vows to get to the bottom of the mystery. Even if the monsters are only in his head.

Those Across the River, a debut novel by poet and playwright Christopher Beuhlman, is a creepy story that reads more like literary fiction than horror. Except for all the gore, of course. Nothing poetic about that. The rest of the book, though, focuses more on character, setting and the mystery Frank's trying to solve. It may not be the most original story in the world (although I have to say I like the idea of vengeful slave spirits), but it kept me entertained. It is a little more graphic (sex, language, and gore-wise) than I would have liked. Still and all, I have to say I enjoyed Those Across the River, even if it is more of a Halloween read than a Christmas one.

(Readalikes: A million titles should be popping into my mind, but I'm drawing a blank. Any suggestions?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, sexual content, violence and gore

To the FTC, with love: I bought Those Across the River at Changing Hands Bookstore with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

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