"Have you ever seen a ghost?" invites a pivotal character to begin Michael Rowe's novel Wild Fell. Maybe the reader has, maybe the reader hasn't, but the invitation lures one to settle in for a spooky ride. What follows, forming the bulk of the prologue, is a literary rendering of a slasher movie scene wherein a nubile young couple are punished for losing their virginity. The setting is the '60s, the prose is Gothic, and the slaughter - and sex - is graphic with supernatural elements and Canadiana stirred into the mix. Rowe is juggling genres, styles and eras to create a distinctive voice that echoes with the haunting whisper of a classic haunted house horror story.
Chapter One begins as a traditional ghost story and proceeds in a linear fashion as a lengthy flashback from an unreliable narrator. Again Rowe toys with the reader, clues are dropped, red herrings fleshed out, unexpected twists occur, and it is not until near the end that we discover just how far back, and how cleverly, we have been flashed. A lot of time is spent on the narrator's childhood and while it is sumptuous sepia-toned reading, the almost-one-a-page dictionary-requiring words slow down the pace by pulling the reader out of the story to admire, or curse, the narrator's vocabulary. Fortunately the Gothic tone, of which one assumes the florid word choices are part of, adds a menace and creeping tension to the tale.
True terror kicks in about halfway through and at that point - it involves the narrator as a boy, a candle, and being alone with a shadowy figure in a mirror - the pace picks up and races towards the finale. We all know how a haunted house story ends but I did find myself shouting out loud at the narrator, "Do not go in the basement!" While I didn't - despite the copious exposition and explanations - quite believe the narrator's obsession, by that point I cared deeply about his fate and my skin was crawling while I compulsively read on.
What is most intriguing about Wild Fell, and it didn't hit me until one particularly graphic and startling incest scene that has been set up in the most horrific way, is the calm fashion in which Rowe takes the taboo topics that usually lurk on the fringes of Gothic novels and situates them in the foreground. There is genderbending, child abuse, a feisty lesbian, creepy insects and a heaping helping of house porn, all of which add a contemporary spice to a classical structure. The results are not going to make a reader afraid of the dark, and never achieves the brutally bloody narrative thrust of his previous novel Enter, Night, but one is unable to put Wild Fell down until the riveting denouement. The characters breathe with an undead life and Wild Fell is as unsettling as actually seeing a ghost.
Wild Fellis available at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St. The launch party and booksigning is Mon, Dec 2 at the Red Bull Lounge, fly nightclub, 8 Gloucester St.