Monthly Archives: September 2014

Wordy Review: In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

And so, as it was foretold at the dawn of all things, it fell unto me to wield the the power and responsibility of selecting a book and soon the circle will be complete only open once more. Truly this is how God must feel when he selects a book. With such a heavy task I weighed on my shoulders I wasted no time in lazily Googling ‘best horror novels of 2013’ because I am nothing if not behind the times or ‘retro’ as the kids call it. What made the shortlist was In the ‘House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods’ and ‘The Orange Eats Creeps’, that is until I found out the latter was about vampires so that immediately removed it from consideration because vampires aren’t scary, because it’s impossible to be scared of something that can be defeated with a seasoning and whose pale complexion, archaic vernacular and aversion to sunlight give it more in common with the average Warcraft player than it does nightmares from the deepest recesses of the frail human psyche.
So in a house upon the ground between the road and another road I announced my selection and was immediately accused of selecting a book based on the length of its title which is a hard criticism to ignore when said title sounds less like that of a novel and more like vague directions to some guys house. At any rate for the purposes of brevity over the following review and to save my delicate fingers for more important things, like performing surgery while hammering out a bitchin’ guitar solo, I’m going to just call the book a much simpler name, like Jerry. I would just use acronym but even then ITHUTDBTLATW is more than a handful so I’m sticking with Jerry.

Jerry is a difficult novel to describe, I originally said that it was about a husband and wife who moved into the woods to begin a family and then shit gets weird but I suppose that isn’t pretentious enough for the literati so instead I’ll say it’s a stylistic fairy tale-esk surrealist introspective pseudo-horror story soaked in recursion and the guilt and darkness cast by the shadow of the highest hopes of those newlywed and wanting parents and given how wankish that last sentence was here’s a video of a panda sneezing. Panda sneezes aside that’s probably the most apt description I can give and given that surrealist introspective horror is my bag, baby, I’ll say that I ended up quite liking this one.

Not that there aren’t a few hurdles along the way in reading Jerry. About four pages in the narrator swallows a stillborn foetus, which is really less of a hurdle and more a well constructed brick wall, and shortly after we find out that the wife character can pull stars from the sky and sing objects into existence, so in a few short pages of reading it’s like finding out that Stephen King and Salvador Dali had a bastard lovechild that was then eaten by the Brothers Grimm. That’s the surreal fable side of things and I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to exit at that point, and that’s before we get to talking bears, transforming squids and decade long labyrinths. You see what we’re dealing with here in terms of plot is that perusing the ideals of love, marriage and children each places a strain on both the others and getting that balance right is like one of those chicken, fox, grain puzzles where you want all three but each damages the other like scissors paper rock and now I’m just double dipping metaphors.

The writing style is a big plus for me, a sort of first person folklore that never deals in specifics like names and locations but prefers symbols and feeling. I described The Luminaries writing style as polished to a mirror shine and while Jerry has also been carefully refined it’s style is more of an intricate woodcarving, something done with attention to the grain of its themes rather than smoothed over and no I’m not really sure what I’m talking about I just know that I mean it.
The horror aspects are less blood and darkness and more about the kinds of things people do to and for each other when something as delicate as love is involved. At its peak Jerry had me hooked when the husband realises just how misconceived his perception of his wife was and is cast into an abyss of dread and guilt for the wasted time and his own blindness, so definitely not your typical ‘man with a hook-hand’ kind of horror. Maybe the comparison to Stephen King 287 words earlier was ill-conceived, perhaps Lovecraft is the better fit, only instead of eldritch elements from beyond time being the unknowable source of your undoing it’s the people next to you who you’ve fooled yourself into believing you love and understand, that two people will never be one and thus imbalance and hurt will always be constants and bloody hell this is getting bleak, where’s that video of otters holding hands?
Ok, that’s better.

Bottom line here though is does Jerry get my rubber stamp of approval or my rubber stamp of boot heel? Much like A Scanner Darkly before it this is an acquired taste though a little easier to chew due to its carefully carved writing style. The oddity here is the story itself, full of hope, grief and jealousy, magic moons and the ghosts of swallowed children, all of which I quite liked in the end. If I was to retroactively insert it into the Mid-Year Retrospective Hoedown it’d probably slot in at #3 so it’s a pretty solid recommendation. Now that’s done I’m going to watch that otter video again because adorable animal videos are also my bag (it’s a big bag).

Huh, usually I aim to hit about a thousand words with these things but seem to have come up short on this one, either because I managed to be concise for once or because explaining this novel is hard and I’m lazy (‘¿porque no los dos?’), so to bow out let me summarise in limerick:

There’s a house between the lake and wood
Where everything is not as it should
There’s a talking bear
but the writings quite fair
so all told I think it’s quite good


Written by B.T. Calloway, in a House upon a Hill, in a Room in my Underpants