Friday, 9 September 2016

'This Time of Day, This Time of Year'

One of the pleasures of reading You'll Know When You Get There is the discovery of excellent American short stories that happen to involve the weird, the ghostly, the supernatural. This particular example is an object lesson in how less can be more in the hands of a skilled author.

Josie returns home to small-town Georgia after serving in Iraq. Her little sister Ellen is pleased at first, then realises that Josie has changed. PTSD seems the obvious explanation for Josie's tetchiness, sleepwalking, and general lack of engagement with her family and the life she knew before being sent overseas. However, Josie then asks Ellen to come to a family cabin on Sorrow Lake, and things take a strange turn.

Beneath the lake lies what's left of the old town of Hekate, founded in the early years of the US. Local lore has it that the town was somehow not right, with escaped slaves talking about a bizarre cult and unholy sacrifices. Josie spends a lot of time underwater, swimming through the sunken town. She invited Ellen to join her. Then, one night, Josie goes out swimming alone, and is never seen again. Ellen dreams of Hekate, its strange church. She discovers the origin of the name. And she feels compelled to return to Sorrow Lake.

This is quiet horror as first-rate literature. To the end I was left guessing by many things. Firstly, there's the symbolism of Josie's military service, the way in which it puts so many ordinary American families at the heart of their nation's power and yet renders them powerless. Hekate might symbolise the unwritten or forgotten story of America's failures, drawing damaged individuals like Josie to it. But there is much here to ponder in a superficially simple tale. Suffice to say I was gripped from the first word to the last, and not a word in between was wasted.

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