The Spirit of Place: S. P. Miskowski

Some time back I broached the idea of putting my reprise of past reviews from Black Static to this blog on a formal basis, and the moment is now.

As I said before, I won’t post anything that isn’t at least six months old (i.e. three issues), and as #36 has just mailed out that means reviews from #33 and earlier are fair game.

So this week I’m posting something from #33, and then from #32 the week after that, and from #31 the week after that, and so on, until #37 mails out, when we’ll put reviews from #34 into play, rinse and repeat.

Yes, I have made it needlessly complicated.

And I reserve the write to change the plan whenever I wish.

Anyway, this feature on S. P. Miskowski debuted in Black Static #33:-

THE SPIRIT OF PLACE: S. P. MISKOWSKI

One of the most interesting and original writers to emerge in recent years, S. P. Miskowski made a reputation for herself with short stories published in places like Supernatural Tales and Horror Bound Magazine. Her first novel, set in the small town of Skillute in Washington State, was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award, and Miskowski is currently working on a trilogy of novellas located in the same country backwater as KNOCK KNOCK (Omnium Gatherum pb, 288pp, $13.99), and I’ll get to one of those later in this feature.

But first, that novel.

Knock Knock is placed squarely in the American tradition of small town horror, with its terrors spun out over several decades; in essence the kind of thing that a certain Mr King does so well, but there the resemblance ends. It opens with three young girls – Marietta, Ethel and Beverly – deciding that they don’t want to have babies and going into the woods, according to local legend the stamping ground of a spirit known as Miss Knocks, where they perform a ritual intended to prevent pregnancy, but things go wrong and something that may have been sleeping is woken, an evil that attempts to have its way with the people of Skillute over the course of the next fifty years.

Fertility is central to the story, with the entity trying to be born, to take on flesh and blood so that it can fulfil its blind mission of vengeance, as if in their hapless efforts to achieve sterility the three girls had some inkling of what was to come. As each blossoms into womanhood, they fall pregnant, and it’s their progeny that offer a vessel to the malevolent spirit. Marietta has something of the shamanic ability of her aunt Delphine Dodd and so is able to protect herself and, to a lesser degree, the others from what is coming down, but she can only do so much and nature outmanoeuvres her. The streets of Skillute are stalked by a monster in the form of a young girl, one who terrifies the adults and lures her peers to a lonely death in the woods. Drastic measures are called for, but they come with a high cost, as some die and others are plunged into an overwhelming grief. And, despite the sacrifices made, the cruelty with which Marietta fights cruelty, the evil doesn’t end, only bides its time for another vessel to arrive in Skillute, when the whole cycle can begin over again, going on and on down successive generations.

This is a big book, even though it weighs in at only 288 pages. Miskowski gives far more alarums and excursions for your dollar than my synopsis might suggest, as I’ve restricted myself to detailing only the essentials. There are complications and plot twists aplenty, some of which only become apparent when you have read the novella. Starting slowly the book builds to a crescendo, first giving us innocent children on a jaunt in the woods and then taking the story forward to where they are fallible adults, exposed to the machinations of the evil they have unwittingly released. Eventually the story achieves a momentum all its own, rushing headlong to a shattering finale, and the prose, which Miskowski uses with such care and accuracy throughout, in the final pages attains a fever dream intensity, so that we can’t trace any clear divide between reality and the skewed perspectives of the characters, the two blurring into each other, everything viewed through a blood red filter and in the light cast by flickering flames.

In large part the efficacy of this endeavour relies on a credible backdrop for the story, and Miskowski is especially adept at drawing her setting, the town of Skillute, once a prosperous logging centre but faring badly in the wake of recession, and undercutting this is a keen awareness of how economics can affect all aspects of our lives, as with the case of Lydia and Greg who are driven to live in a place they would shun in normal circumstances. There is a beautifully realised sense of community here, seen in the attitudes of the characters towards each other and the casual banter at the store, the yard sales and neighbourly visits, all combining to create a full blown picture of life in a small town where everybody knows your name, will help if they can and mind their own business when needed. Though we only meet a fraction of the people who inhabit the town, Skillute seems a very real place, with the feeling that life is taking place off the page as well as on, and that if she choose to Miskowski could tell us all about the lives of these other people who wander in and out of the story, or exist simply as extras in the mind’s eye of the reader.

But perhaps the area where Miskowski excels most is in her characterisation of the people in her tale, the small details she captures that bring them to such vivid life on the page. The three girls/women are splendid creations, each with their individual airs and graces, seen in how they interact with each other – Marietta is the serious one, Beverly is house proud, Ethel is leading the proverbial life of quiet desperation. And then there is Lydia, who inherits something of her mother’s snobbery, and the sociopathic Connie Sara, a chilling distillation of evil. While the main characters are women, Miskowski doesn’t stint on the men in her book, with the cruel and philandering John, Burt whose exuberance is channelled into madness by life and loss, Greg who is so eager to do the best by his bride, and kindly preacher Henry, probably the nicest character here, though in less skilful hands he could so easily have been a bumpkin.

The book begins and ends in blood. Menstrual blood, blood used in magic, blood spilled in childbirth, the blood on the hands of a killer. There are horrors within these pages, and times when it is a hard book to read. Marietta makes life or death decisions that result in terrible acts, even the death of a child, or something that masquerades as a child, but if she appoints herself judge, jury and executioner it seems right that she do so, adopting extreme measures to deal with an evil most of us cannot imagine. That she is willing to allow her character to behave like this instead of seeking some more socially acceptable and reader friendly resolution, is an act of bravery on Miskowski’s part, one that is more than justified, and which puts the ball squarely in the reader’s court, posing the question as to how much harm we ourselves are willing to countenance in furthering a just cause. As if in answer to this question, Miskowski gives us a bleak ending, one in which Marietta’s sacrifice is perhaps in part down to being no longer able to live with the consequences of her actions, and yet the evil isn’t brought to an end by what she does. It only sleeps, waiting for the next innocent to come along and disturb its slumber.

The action of Knock Knock began in the 1960s and played out over fifty years. Miskowski’s novella DELPHINE DODD (Omnium Gatherum pb, 106pp, $11.99) opens in the 1910s, with the eponymous Delphine and her sister Olive abandoned by the side of the road by their mother, who is headed off in search of the good life with her cheap hoodlum boyfriend and doesn’t want children slowing her down. They are taken in by their grandmother Eve Alice, who lives in a house in the woods and has a reputation as a healer and wise woman. What follows is an idyllic existence of sorts, poor in material things but with the beauty of nature and a sense of peace with the spiritual aspects of life, though not without personal tragedy and loss, and injustices to be set right, as when they discover that women at the nearby sanatorium are being mistreated. In the second section of the book, Delphine is grown to adulthood and has ‘abilities’ of her own. She inherits a house in the newly named town of Skillute from her mother, and sets up shop there, bartering with others and using her arts to help them. And it’s in trying to help one woman that she lays the foundations for much of what happens in Knock Knock.

All the skills that made Miskowski’s novel such a success are equally evident in this story of magic and changing times. At its heart is the character of the wise woman, seen first in Eve Alice and then Delphine herself, using their abilities in ways that benefit the community, seeking to do no harm, though in that they aren’t always successful as sometimes methods need to be adopted that aren’t acceptable in polite society, with actions that foreshadow Marietta’s behaviour in Knock Knock. There is perhaps a greater sense of place in this short work than in the novel, with the author giving us a potted history of the area and its Indian wars, including the fate of the ominously named Mount Coffin. Underlying this is the idea that the land needs to be treated with respect and, as a side issue, a reference to the familiar plot template of hallowed native ground being tainted by the ignorant interlopers with the inevitable curse to follow. Miskowski doesn’t make this concrete though, just puts the idea out there and leaves it floating free, with the reader left to join whatever dots there may be.

Again, the people are the key to the story. Miskowski paints on a wide canvas, capturing all of life with her pen, drawing her characters with real skill and placing them at the centre of their community. There’s a touch of sly, knowing humour to some of this, as with the scathing warts and all portrait of Delphine’s mother’s boyfriend and the way in which the foibles of the gentry are captured. The distance between the rich and the poor is also underlined, with the character of Harriet Knox thinking she can buy happiness and incapable of grasping why the world doesn’t simply adjust itself to her will, convincingly descending into madness as a result of that disconnect between reality and expectation.

While it lays the groundwork for the events in Knock Knock, and certainly there are supernatural forces at work in the margins of this novella, a purely human evil drives the plot of Delphine Dodd. At bottom it’s a story about those who use and those who are used, and it’s written with compassion and sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden, those taken advantage of by time and fate, the greed and cupidity of their so called betters.

Along with Brendan Connell’s The Architect, I rate Delphine Dodd as the best novella I read in 2012, and Knock Knock as the best book I read in any category. Both works are available in paperback and e-format.

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2 Responses to The Spirit of Place: S. P. Miskowski

  1. Thank you, Pete. This is lovely.

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