"An image jumped into my head: a man who had just been lynched grabbed the rope and hauled himself up into the tree."
That disturbing little mental movie isn't explicitly written into Christopher Buehlman's novel Those Across the River, but that doesn't matter; it did its job.
"The image really struck me, and I asked myself, 'How did he do that? What was he that could do that?'" writes the St. Petersburg resident via email from France, where he's currently researching his second book. "The answers came quickly."
For the author, perhaps. The reader must work for those answers, but working one's way through the immersive, immaculately detailed world of Those Across the River is, above all, a labor of love. In his debut novel, Buehlman has taken a fairly standard scary-story trope — the impact of the sins of the past on the denizens of the present — and spun it into something vibrant, unnerving and wholly his own.
The tale concerns World War I veteran Frank Nichols and his wife Eudora, who have fled a life in academia destroyed by scandal to start over in the Depression-ravaged backwoods Georgia town his family once called home. One of Nichols' forebears is said to have met an unsavory end at the hands of his own slaves shortly after the Civil War; Nichols intends to write a book about the incident.
The protagonist's plans, naturally, are soon derailed by an escalating series of inexplicable and violent events as the true nature of the historic atrocity, and its effect on the town of Whitbrow, are revealed.
Two things go a long way toward setting Buehlman's book apart from any number of similarly themed Southern gothics. The first is the author's style, which is disciplined yet evocative. The second is the novel's astonishing richness of detail — without seeming to be, well, ostentatiously stuffed with detail. But the writer laughs off the idea of himself as a serious student of America's past.
"I hate the word 'serious,'" he writes. "It sounds so damned grim! I prefer to think of myself as a history geek of the first order."
Buehlman's geekiness pays off in spades in Those Across The River. It's the realism, with regard to everything from Nichols' true-to-life WWI exploits to the slang of its minor characters, that brings the book to life. Which, of course, makes it all the more unsettling when Buehlman begins to weave threads of the supernatural into the narrative. Those single threads gradually become whole swatches of discordance, but they never overwhelm the depth of the story's characters, or the humanity at its center.
That dedication to story over scare — the focus on the people rather than the monster, as it were — has made Buehlman a key figure in a new wave of horror literature known as, well, "literary horror."
"I'm just glad there is such a wave," he writes. "Really three-dimensional horror novels, i.e. novels most people would keep reading if nothing scary happened, have certainly been in the minority for some time."
Buehlman's organic sense of balance between narrative meat and provocative gristle may be the result of his artistic input. Film has made as large an impression on the writer as other influences, and he was exposed secondhand to the late '60s/early '70s golden age of American filmmaking via cable TV. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a personal favorite, and he names Kubrick as his dream director for a theoretical movie adaptation of Those Across the River, mortality be damned:
"It's probably clear by now that I'm a Kubrick fiend," he writes. "And having a dead director would really give it horror cred, don't you think?"
Those Across the River is available from Penguin imprint Ace Books. Jobsite Theater will mount Buehlman's comedy Hot Nights for the War Wives of Ithaka in March 2012.