Seldom does an author imbue a novel with such an immediate air of menace, the truly threatening presence of evil plodding relentlessly after innocence, determined to swallow the helpless in its hungry maw. Described by the author as a modern-day “Hansel and Gretel,” this riveting novel very specifically addresses the nature of good and evil in a plot that is both fearsome and beautifully rendered.
Facades are stripped away as the protagonists muddle through in a nightmare peopled with goblins and ghosts. One very human monster roams freely in this gothic 1950s landscape: Fenton Breece, the local undertaker, has the look and demeanor of the otherworldly with which he communes, giving off the scent of decay and dementia. Breece keeps to himself, shunned by the local townsfolk, his shameful secrets hidden behind crafty, scheming eyes.
The peaceful surface of this rural society is split apart when Kenneth and Corrie Tyler, two local teenagers, unearth their father’s grave and find the corpse desecrated. Deeply shocked, they extend the search to other burial sites, discovering them equally defiled by the horrors of a sick mind.
Watching Breece’s house under Corrie’s direction, Kenneth has an unexpected opportunity to steal a briefcase that contains not money but a trove of incriminating evidence against the undertaker. Thinking to use this sudden windfall to improve their lives, Corrie sets a plan in motion to extort money from Breece; in their naiveté, neither realizes the Pandora’s Box they have opened.
Misery arrives in the person of Granville Sutter, a killer with a long reputation charged by Breece to retrieve the stolen goods and a generous reward for his efforts. The rest of the novel plays out as a stunning nightmare, as picturesque as it is terrifying, true evil stalking the land, Kenneth Tyler gone to ground along with the evidence.
While Breece slides further into the moral morass of his delusions, Tyler wanders the Harrikin, an eerie backwoods filled with tangled brush and vegetation, the very place a symbol for ill luck. Sutter tracks Kenneth, seemingly prescient, ever but one step behind the boy. Sutter is unstoppable, savoring the taste of the kill, terrorizing any brave spirits who help the boy: “He hadn’t known there were perversions this dark, souls this twisted.”
Set against nature’s bountiful chaos, hunter and prey wend through their macabre dance with only the stars and beasts for audience. Tyler feels marked by fate, sure he carries “the seed of some dread plague that would lay waste all before him so that folks… fled into the woods with doors left ajar.”
Gay’s prose is pure genius, haunting and primal, retelling a fable laced with the hopelessness of despair and senseless violence. Only one will prevail, good or evil.