It wasn’t that long ago that every Canadian publisher’s catalogue had to include at least one novel with the same basic premise: a character, usually an educated middle-aged woman, finds the keepsakes of a deceased relative—a diary or a shoebox filled with letters and photographs—while looking through an attic or sea chest. These documents are then pored over in a meditative manner, a process that transports the protagonist, and the reader, to another time and place, where we experience the human stories often omitted from the official historical record
Those same publishers’ catalogues inevitably listed two or three novels of straight historical fiction in all but their up-market, sepia-tinted cover imagery and claims to import profound moral truths to the reader. “Set against the backdrop of” the Holocaust, the Halifax Explosion, or some other easily identifiable historical period, these door-stopping epics tended to be slow paced, ponderous, and studded with obvious bits of research—who knew that shirt buttons used to be made from Corozo nuts?
It was difficult not to view a largely ahistorical generation of authors’ sudden interest in the distant past as market-driven and deeply cynical, especially when one considered the media attention, critical praise, and award nominations then being heaped upon works of historical fiction. This at a time when genre fiction—science fiction, mystery—was largely ignored by the country’s literary gatekeepers.
So what to make of CanLit’s recent embrace of the crime and horror genres? Is it a repeat of the historical fiction boom-and-bust of the 2000s, a cynical cash grab and desperate play to attract the attention of an ever-dwindling readership? I’d like to say I’m asking for a friend, but as an author who published a “literary thriller” only three years ago, I feel honour-bound to declare a conflict of interest here.
Certainly, there is an element of careerism and commercial interest in the recent lurch toward violent, narrative-driven fiction from some of our most “literary” authors. However, unlike historical fiction, crime and horror are, at their best, ideal literary forms for expressing fear, apocalyptic anxiety, and disgust, the defining emotional palette of our contemporary zeitgeist. Historical fiction, as it is written in Canada, invites readers to dress up in period costume and pass judgment on the politically incorrect past, while the dark literary arts push us head first into the violent, protean Now.
Four recent novels offer a kind of tasting menu of genre penned by authors who’ve distinguished themselves in traditional CanLit. For the most part, the combination of literary bona fides and genre tropes makes for compelling reading.
Nathan Ripley’s Find You in the Dark is the most obviously commercial of the foursome (the “commercial” tag isn’t meant as a criticism). Ripley is the nom de plume of Naben Ruthnum, a past winner of the Journey Prize for short fiction and the author of a witty book-length essay, Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race.
After a teaser of a scene in which a young woman is abducted and presumably murdered, Find You in the Dark readers are introduced to the novel’s morally compromised protagonist, Martin Reese, a financially successful husband who, for all of his professions of devotion and caring, is often miles away emotionally.
Having cashed out of the Seattle tech company he founded as a young man, Reese is free to pursue his life’s passion: the tracking down and exhuming of the missing victims of convicted serial killers. After finding the remains, Reese anonymously alerts police to the latest body’s location while chiding them for not finishing the job themselves.
Reese claims (he narrates about half the novel) to be motivated by a deep sense of justice born from the murder of his wife’s sister at the hands of a serial killer years earlier. That his heroism amounts to digging up skeletal corpses is, in his eyes, a regrettable detail, a stain on his white armour. His past as an adolescent peeping Tom further muddies his motivations in the reader’s eyes.
Reese puts himself and his wife and daughter in grave danger when two equally obsessive bloodhounds, one a police detective, the other a dormant serial killer, take a personal interest in his latest find: the body of a long-missing woman. When Reese is framed for a more recent murder, he’s faced with a quandary: confess his crimes and seek police protection or go it alone and track down the true killer.
As Reese is drawn into the real world of police officers and murderers, Ruthnum artfully stretches the conventions of the contemporary thriller/police procedural without denying readers any of their rewards. The pace is brisk and engaging, and Ruthnum makes the wise choice of fleshing out the complex web of human relationships shredded by Reece’s obsession. He switches from the intonations of cop lingo to tech talk to marital intimacy with seeming ease.
Find You in the Dark does adhere too closely to genre convention in its failure to fully explore Reese’s creepy fetish for digging up corpses. Other characters, especially the police detective, have Reese pegged as a potential psychopath who funnels his pathology into a seemingly benign obsession, but Ruthnum seems to resist this interpretation. Instead, Reese reads less like a deeply disturbed crusader for justice than the kind of larger-than-life genius/anti-hero popularized by such prestige TV series as Dexter, Luther, and Hannibal.
Giller-nominated author Timothy Taylor also chooses a dotcom insider for his protagonist in The Rule of Stephens, a genuinely strange novel that fuses the high-tech corporate thriller with elements of dark fantasy and folk horror.
Catharine Bach, the CEO and founder of a biotech start-up, is one of six survivors of a plane crash off the coast of Ireland, and the only one to walk away from the wreckage with no visible injuries. The experience has, of course, profoundly shaken her, sending her into an anxious, indecisive funk that threatens the future of her beloved company.
Catharine is a hyper-rationalist who neatly divides humanity into two opposing camps: those who believe in a purely material universe governed by discernable physical laws (laws espoused by Stephen Hawking, the first “Stephen” of the novel’s title) and those who resort to magic and superstition to explain life’s mysteries (a worldview typified by the novels of Stephen King, the second Stephen).
“There were the laws of physics and then there was everything else,” Catharine muses. “You had to choose which set of rules explained life best.” Unfortunately for her, there is no rational explanation to explain her survival, or her memories of the crash, which include the appearance of hundreds of crows in the cabin as the plane plunged toward the sea. When another survivor appears to warn Catharine that the other survivors have all since committed suicide (possibly at the bidding of their own doppelangers), her free fall into uncharted metaphysical territory is almost complete.
It’s a fantastic premise, one that Taylor mostly pulls off while loosely adhering to the strictures of the corporate thriller (Catharine’s company is threatened with a hostile takeover by a mysterious venture capitalist). More literary in its sentence craft and depth of character and ideas than similar works in the genre, The Rule of Stephens nonetheless hits all the right targets.
Taylor ratchets up the tension as readers are thrust into the strange borderlands where the manic energy and utopianism of West Coast tech culture intersect with the cold will of nefarious venture capitalists who sit enshrined in their palatial C-suites like modern Pharaohs.
The intriguing premise is somewhat undermined, however, by the Stephens themselves. Picking a brilliant physicist to represent the materialist viewpoint and a bestselling horror author to represent the supernatural feels like a cheat from the start, a blatant rigging of the novel’s philosophical arguments in favour of rationalist materialism. Stephen Hawking devoted his life to expounding a set of rules to explain life; Stephen King is a fantasist who exploits the grey areas of consciousness to tell a good story.
It’s hardly a fair fight, and too often Catharine’s philosophical musings employ the same straw-man arguments beloved of the New Atheists, in which materialists are presented as seekers of objective truth while believers of any degree are denigrated as anti-rationalists. Taylor would have done well to follow the example of Dostoevsky, whose brilliant early novel The Double is alluded to throughout The Rule of Stephens. An almost fanatical orthodox Christian, Dostoevsky nonetheless often gave his atheist anti-heroes his novels’ best lines and counterarguments. The Rule of Stephens, for all of its nimble juggling of omens and doppelgangers, never quite delivers full Stephen King.
Until now, Craig Davidson has neatly divided his literary output between “serious” character-driven fiction (published in his own name) and gory, traditional horror novels (published under the pseudonym Nick Cutter), enjoying success in both fields. The Saturday Night Ghost Club is Davidson’s first novel to walk the line between, and ultimately enfold within one authorial voice, his gift for dramatizing interior and exterior battles of masculine identity with Cutter’s high-concept, suspense-driven plotting.
The novel looks back from the current moment to 1980s Niagara Falls, the economically depressed, aesthetically bleached-out terrain of Davidson’s best fiction. There, amidst the tatty tourist shops and shuttered factories, Jake Baker, a pre-adolescent nerd (before that designation became cool), lives a lonely existence brightened by his eccentric uncle Calvin, the owner of an occult shop. A connoisseur of conspiracy and occult theories, Calvin bestows on the city’s bleak streets a romantic fading grandeur, making Niagara Falls a repository of secret histories and hauntings.
When Jake befriends a pair of siblings whose First Nations identity forces them to the social margins, Calvin forms the Ghost Club of the title and set out uncover the truth behind several local legends. Several genuinely spooky adventures immerse the reader in the horror tropes of a gentler era more in tune with Calvin’s sensibilities than Jake’s.
This story, which also explores the tragic events that unhinged Calvin as a young man, is framed by the adult Jake’s reflections on his experiences as a successful brain surgeon. Having probed the human brain’s thousands of folds, Jake now turns that same steely focus on his own past and that of his uncle.
The framing device feels a tad clunky at first, creating, as it does, a too-clean division between past and present, but Davidson ultimately wields it to useful effect, creating a necessary distance between the reader and a series of revelations that might have otherwise bogged down the narrative in pathos.
On a fundamental level, this is a novel about nostalgia, about how its allure can, in the unstable hands of a wounded soul like uncle Calvin, become a gateway to madness. And having a veteran of a thousand brain surgeries as a guide into this netherworld proves a boon to the reader.
In another case of shifting authorial identity, Sharon Butala revisits a real-life murder case (of a high-school classmate) she wrote about in a 2008 non-fiction book. In Zara’s Dead, the author sifts through a fictionalized version of those facts and circumstances through the medium of Fiona Lychenko, a retired and widowed small-town journalist who, like Butala, wrote a book about the murder of a classmate.
Now living in Calgary (again like Butala), Fiona renews her investigation into the still-unsolved murder after somebody slides a mysterious note under her door bearing the number of a government file and nothing else. Determined to track down the file and expose the web of powerful men she suspects of covering for the murderer, Fiona returns to the prairie town of Ripley, where her book-length exposé has made her persona non grata.
Her investigation forms the novel’s skeleton, but its heart and guts are in Fiona’s struggles to come to terms with her husband’s death (and possible involvement in the cover-up) and the narrowing life options of women entering their seventies, a period when they are apt to feel invisible and unwanted. Detective-fiction fans may find the focus on memory and introspection distracting. Too bad for them, as these passages are moving and explore territory barely touched in either genre or literary fiction.
The investigation itself is well handled, with each new clue and revelation adding to the sense of menace. Zara’s Dead views the world through the same ideological lens as much baby-boomer CanLit, equating evil with institutional authority—the police, the government, the patriarchy—and the social institutions that support it (a worldview popularized by CanLit pioneers Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and Timothy Findley). If you’re from an old-money family in this novel, you’re either a bad guy or a cog in their vast social clockwork of enablers.
We are never allowed to seriously doubt Fiona’s motives for risking her reputation and possibly her life to expose a gross, fifty-year-old injustice. In this, Fiona hearkens back to an older generation of amateur sleuths, plucky matrons driven by moral rectitude and a commitment to fair play and basic decency.
This is more in the way of observation than criticism. Fiona may be a bit of a babe in the woods, but the world into which she is pulled is almost allegorical in its intertwining webs of corruption, greed, and self-interest. Her unwavering moral vision occasionally irritates, but it pays dividends in the novel’s climax, when the murderer’s misogynistic depravity is revealed, forcing us to see the post-war patriarchal order stripped of its obscuring social trappings.
Perhaps that’s the lesson these novels want us to take away: that only the very young and the very old, those with no skin in the game, so to speak, can truly sound out the depths of our still-emerging Age of Anxiety.
—From CNQ 103: The 50th Anniversary Issue
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