Filler content with six novels – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, here is the second part of a feature on six novels written by women writers that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-

SIX NOVELS (continued)

Michelle Paver is coming from a similar place to Ward with THIN AIR (Orion hc, 240pp, £12.99), a novel set firmly in the English ghost story tradition. Known primarily as a children’s writer until then, Paver got on the horror genre’s radar in 2010 with Dark Matter, which garnered a Shirley Jackson Award nomination, and Thin Air has a lot of similarities to its predecessor. Like that novel, it comes with the subtitle “A Ghost Story”, takes places in the 1930s, and is set in one of the planet’s less hospitable regions, the Himalayas as opposed to the Arctic.

The protagonist of the story is Dr. Stephen Pearce, who has to get out of London in rather a hurry owing to complications in his personal life, and so elects to join elder brother Kits on an expedition to climb legendary peak Kangchenjunga. From the start the signs are inauspicious with an unsettling meeting with Charles Tennant, the only survivor of the fabled Lyell Expedition, which was beset with difficulties. The party set out in bright spirits, but are soon faced with difficulties of their own, with native guides giving in to superstition, disagreement among the members of the party on how to proceed, and sibling rivalry between Stephen and Kits reasserting itself, all of which takes place against a backdrop of intense cold and blinding snow storms. Worse still, it starts to dawn on Stephen that they are not alone on the mountain as he realises what really happened with the Lyell Expedition.

There’s something of the stiff upper lip to this story, an end of empire vibe, with the characters speaking to each other in clipped tones and acutely aware of class divisions even if they are never spoken of. Set against this, there is the drive of ambition, to demonstrate human mastery over the landscape and the elements, the same pride in achievement that leads people to do incredibly dangerous and daunting things simply “because it’s there”. Paver is superb at describing the Himalayan landscape, the breath-taking beauty of those wild, open spaces, and at the same time showing how implacable the landscape is, the ways in which circumstances can change from amiable to deadly in just moments, with everything at the mercy of the snow and cold. It is a place in which mankind exists on sufferance, through showing constant attention to detail and respect for the environment, though even then safety is far from assured. And Paver speaks with authority, having visited the region as she reveals in the afterword, adding touches of telling verisimilitude to her story, such as inserting the names of real mountaineers and historical details in among the made up stuff.

Paver is excellent too at showing the nature of the men who attempt this expedition, the differences between them and the petty hostilities and rivalries that animate them, as well as their devotion to a common goal. They are ultimately, despite all the pettiness, admirable people. Stephen and Kits are the most fully drawn, the latter the elder son who inherited wealth and position while his brother has to make his own way in the world, something about which Stephen still seems slightly resentful, while Kits for his part assumes the role of elder brother expecting his sibling to simply subjugate his own opinions and will. At bottom there is the feeling that such social differences, in both the case of this expedition and the Lyell Expedition, whose shadow hangs over the proceedings, contribute significantly to the disaster that befalls them. Paver is canny enough to leave some room for ambiguity though, so that we can ask if there really is a supernatural element, or simply human folly and mistakes brought on by the pressures of the place.

And so finally we come to the crux of the matter, whatever there is of truth lying behind that “A Ghost Story” subtitle, with the environment contributing to the characters’ sense of dread, Paver adding small details as she goes and allowing the evidence to mount until the revenant seems almost palpable. The ghost is in these details, and she manages them very well, so that like Stephen and the others we come to feel a chill that has nothing to do with the cold. At bottom this is a finely wrought example of the classic, Jamesian ghost story, albeit with more of suggestion as opposed to revelation than MRJ would allow, and made extra special and disturbing by the bleak, wintery setting. And there’ll be a paperback edition along in early October, just in time for Halloween.

The landscape is also central to THE RIVER AT NIGHT (Raven Books pb, 304pp, £7.99) by Erica Ferencik. After a miserable divorce and the death of her beloved brother, Win wants a relaxing holiday with her three best friends to recover her emotional balance, but Pia has other plans. Beautiful and athletic, Pia is an excitement junkie who manages to persuade them all that the best way to spend their long awaited vacation is white water rafting in the Maine wilderness. Win and Pia, Rachel and Sandra, with tour guide Rory set off into the wild, and at first there is plenty of excitement, but then it all goes pear shaped and the four women find themselves alone in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from civilisation and with limited resources. Tensions among the group add to their woes, as they find that their friendships aren’t as tightly knit as they had previously thought, with old wounds reopened. And just when it looks like things couldn’t get any worse, they find that they are not alone in the woods.

Okay, to summarise, what we have here is four women who have never seen The Descent floundering onto the set of The River Wild and encountering a looney tunes family out of one of Richard Laymon’s ropier novels. It sounds unpromising when put so bluntly, but Ferencik has overcome the paucity of the material to produce a fast paced action thriller, one where the short chapters simply race by, the kind of book that is crying out to be made into a film. She captures perfectly the wildness of the landscape through which the characters venture, a place where it is so easy to stray from any path, to get turned around, to lose your way and remain lost forever. The scenes of white water rafting are vividly drawn, conjuring up a real sense of excitement in the reader and feel for what the women are doing, an activity that requires full cooperation between the mind and muscles. And as it all turns sour, Ferencik also convincingly portrays the desperation of the characters, the way in which their desire to be away from the trappings of civilisation and get back to nature, is something which turns around and bites them on the arse. In a grim fight for survival, further complicated by the hostility of those they expected to help them, the women get to find what they are made of, how tough they really are without their social support networks. It’s a gripping story, undeniably a thriller, but with plenty of horror grace notes, up to and including the ending with its echoes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Of course it wouldn’t be half as much fun if we didn’t believe in the characters, and it is in drawing these four women that Ferencik excels. Pia is the adventurous one, the one with glamour, though you suspect all of this love of action is simply distraction activity for the things she fears, such as growing old and being alone. Sandra is the caring one, the one the others come to with their problems and confidences, so much so that perhaps her own life is suffering by comparison. And Rachel is the practical one, a medical professional who knows how to cope in an emergency, and who is not at all pleased with those who put the group in situations where emergencies seem likely. Finally we have Win, learning to be comfortable in her own skin after the upheavals of recent times, finding that though unintended, this adventure is a rite of passage for her, a way to realise the capability she has, to find her own strength and get in touch with the things she desires most. We believe in these women and the bond that exists between them, we learn to respect and care for them, and that enables us to invest this book with far more emotional engagement than its action film trappings would otherwise engender. It’s not a classic in waiting by any means, but it is a damn fine read, one that is thoroughly entertaining and more than rewards the effort required.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Filler content with six novels – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Filler content with six novels – Part 3 | Trumpetville

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s