In a tale that is almost analogous with the breakdown of the psyche, loner Janice Witherspoon falls to the floor of her North Carolina apartment with a migraine that sends her reeling into oblivion, enduring until the pain releases its tenacious grip. At the same time, her boyfriend in Iraq is blown apart.
Although Janice remains unaware until a phone call from his relatives, the concussion that kills the soldier reverberates through Janice’s life. She packs her few possessions, taking to the road.
Her first impulse is to meet the returning soldier’s body, but along the way, increasingly unable to function, Witherspoon drives in erratic spurts through an unfamiliar landscape, from North Carolina to rural Pennsylvania, where she stops at a remote, vacant clapboard house - the “locktender’s” house. Filled with adequate provisions, at least temporarily, Janice takes refuge in this strange place with no thought to the future.
Thus begins phase two of Janice’s odyssey through her own interior and the frail connections of the past. Not quite a likeable character, Janice is plagued with an intense unwillingness to interact either with coworkers or strangers she meets along the way.
Inhabiting this sparsely furnished house hour by hour, Janice chops wood, eats from shelves of preserved food, and dreams bizarre fantasies, barely able to tell truth from reality, save an unexpected encounter with a local stone sculptor and the haunting songs of a spectral female that waft through her subconscious.
Trapped in the isolation of her own mind, Janice is battered by fears more imagined than real and dreams that bespeak the torturous past of a woman who loses husband and children, left to fend for herself in a man’s environment, her addled brain a frail defense against repeated cruelty.
But what truth lies at the core of everything that has happened to Janice? What has drawn her to this place, this fusion of past and present, the images that plague her dreams? Desperate for answers, Janice follows a flawed logic that drives Stephen Grainy away, a stranger who gives her every chance yet is appalled by the girl’s seeming descent into manic obsession.
Sherrill has crafted a haunting, enigmatic bridge between reality and the eerie tentacles of a violent history that seduces Janice into an otherworldly fugue state, her dreams as primitive as the system of connected canals that created the need for the lockhouse, the system annihilated in the mid-1880s by the advancement of the railroads.
Janice’s path is frightening, her choices critical in surviving a twisted destiny. A mad romp through improbable and frightening territory, fact and fiction collide, no markers to guide Janice’s deterioration, reminding me of “The Shining.” At the end, I know no more of Janice than at the start, other than that I should have trusted my instincts and remained wary of this character.