Twin Peaks in Upstate NY: “House of Echoes” by Brendan Duffy

mediumOriginally published in Bookpage.

Brendan Duffy’s fantastic debut novel is gloomy, small-town Gothic horror in the vein of “Twin Peaks,” Alan Wake and The Shining.

After a few rough years in Manhattan, a “semi-famous” author named Ben Tierney relocates his wife and sons to a remote village in the Adirondack Mountains. He hopes that renovating a sprawling, neglected estate called the Crofts and turning it into an inn will provide his family with a new sense of purpose. But isolated on a forested cliff overlooking town, it doesn’t take long for things to get thoroughly weird.

Deer carcasses appear on the Tierneys’ property, the remains ripped apart and barely recognizable. Strange artifacts turn up in the estate’s cavernous cellar, maps and letters and ancient books. Townspeople stare and whisper about “the winter families” whenever Ben ventures down into the valley. And one night, while Ben’s wife is cooking dinner, an explosive sound vibrates through the house. Ben finds a back door swinging open and shut in the wind, the lock smeared with tree sap.

“He turned on the exterior lights and looked out the glass. Placed in the center of the stoop like the morning’s newspaper was a severed deer’s head, staring at him with black, blood-flecked eyes.”

Most disturbing of all, Ben’s older son Charlie is convinced that someone, or something, is watching them from the woods. As a neo-Gothic horror novel, House of Echoes succeeds because it contains no familiar creatures. There are no ghosts here, despite some surface similarities to Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers. There are no witches or werewolves. Duffy knows that true horror has neither name nor face. Grounded by emotional realism and nuanced characters, House of Echoes is intense, addictive and genuinely creepy.


House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy (Ballantine)

Sherlock in the White City: “The Fifth Heart” by Dan Simmons

BK29FIFTHHEART.JPGOriginally published in The Denver Post.

In the spring of 1893, five years before he would publish “The Turn of the Screw,” Henry James decides to celebrate his 50th birthday in Paris by drowning himself in the river Seine. But as his foot hovers over the water, James notices a figure watching him in the dark: the World’s First and Foremost Consulting Detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Until recently, Holmes had been under the impression that his partner, Dr. Watson, was the author of his exploits appearing in The Strand, and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was merely his literary agent. However, Holmes has noticed continuity errors in his life, and through his powers of deduction, come to a disturbing realization.

“I am, the evidence has proven to me most conclusively, a literary construct. Some ink-stained scribbler’s creation.”

Regardless, Holmes’ appetite for unsolved mysteries has led him to the real-life suicide in 1885 of American socialite Clover Adams, the inspiration for Henry James’ early novel, “The Portrait of a Lady.”

Holmes believes Clover was murdered. Every year on the anniversary of her death, Clover’s late husband Henry Adams (grandson of former president John Quincy Adams) receives an anonymous calling card in the mail embossed with five hearts, one of which has been scratched out: like the novel’s title, it’s an allusion to the Five of Hearts, a group of influential Washingtonians who regularly gathered for tea in Clover’s parlor.

This isn’t the first time Dan Simmons, who lives in Boulder, has infused his Hugo award-winning fiction with history. “The Terror” (2007) reimagined the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin as an encounter with mythical horror, while “Drood” (2009) explored the final years of Charles Dickens’ life through the eyes of Wilkie Collins.

This time, Simmons has essentially written a literary buddy comedy, and the result is his funniest and breeziest novel to date, despite its heft. The reluctant, cantankerous Henry James is a perfect foil for Holmes. At first, James balks at the prospect of a transcontinental goose chase: “There is no power, means, force, blackmail, inducement, or other method of persuasion — in this lifetime or in any other possible variation of this life — that you could use to persuade me to travel with you tomorrow,” he quips. And Simmons’ Holmes is full of such delightful non sequiturs as “I see the physiognomy of men, not their added facial-hair accoutrements. I am, for instance, somewhat of an expert on ears.”

As they travel from Paris to Washington, and finally to the same World’s Fair in Chicago that Erik Larson brought to life in “The Devil in the White City,” the odd couple encounters Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and Mark Twain in the search for truth.

Even with a body of work as impressive as Simmons has accrued in the past 30 years, “The Fifth Heart” is one of his most engrossing and addictive books to date.


The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown)

My Nominations for the 2014 NBCC Leonard Award

Last year, the National Book Critics Circle introduced a new award for first books, the John Leonard Award, as determined by members of the NBCC. The book may be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or any other genre, so long as it’s the author’s debut. The inaugural award went to Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Members may nominate up to five books for the award, and if I had to guess, this year’s prize will probably go to heavy favorites like Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng or Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, two absolutely brilliant, deserving pieces of work.

But I’d like to use the nominations to highlight some not-so-heavy favorites, mostly books from smaller presses that I believe deserve wider attention and exposure. And while I read some great nonfiction (The Sixth Extinction) and poetry this year, none of them were debuts, so all five of my nominations are fiction.

niemNobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
FSG Originals

A Manhattanite abruptly abandons her life and her husband for a one-way ticket to New Zealand, where she drifts among the cars and homes of strangers and the island’s vast wilderness. A beautiful and funny book that isn’t afraid to take stylistic risks.

There’s nothing better about living in a farm than living in a city. You can’t just go sit in a pretty landscape and bet on it changing you into a better person.


nisNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Unnamed Press

I also picked Olukotun’s novel as one of my favorite works of speculative fiction in 2014. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria.

It’s time for a great mind of Nigeria to return home. You’re the mind we need, Doctor. The marsh can’t pretend that it isn’t fed by the river. You’re a part of Nigeria, too.


tbhThe Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books

I reviewed Rader-Day’s debut thriller for Bookpage. A Chicago sociology professor is gunned down by a student she’s never met. Months later, she returns to campus and solves the mystery of who tried to kill her and why. I challenge you not to devour this book in one breathless sitting.

I don’t know what they all thought—that I baited a troubled kid, drove him insane with sex or quid pro quo grading practices, and then suffered the only outcome that made any sense? Got what I deserved? Asked for it?

fojcFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Montana, 1979. A social worker investigates the living conditions of a troubled boy, the son of a dangerous End Times survivalist/preacher. But the social worker has family issues of his own, and is soon caught up in an FBI manhunt for the boy’s father. Henderson’s density and tone approach Cormac McCarthy’s mastery of voice.

Chromed long-haulers glinted like showgirls among logging trucks caked in oatmealy mud, white exhaust thrashing flamelike in the wind from their silvery stacks.

twThe Wilds by Julia Elliott
Tin House Books

Elliott teaches at the University of South Carolina, and her debut collection of strange, dark, genre-defying short stories brings to mind the great SF/F master Jeffrey Ford. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction…take your pick, and you’ll find something to love in The Wilds. Not recommended on a full stomach, however.

Every year spring came to Whitmire, South Carolina, with its riot of flowers and bees, promising a larger world. For a while, summer would live up to this promise. But soon the dog days would descend and trap you in a bubble of gaseous heat. Amnesia would set in, wiping out all dreams of escape until autumn pricked you out of your stupor.

Best Speculative Fiction of 2014

If there’s an (unintentional) theme for the best speculative fiction I read this year, it’s Africa. Two South Africans, Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz, each had a bestselling novel hit the shelves, and two Nigerian-American authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Deji Bryce Olukotun, expanded the horizons of literary science fiction. Meanwhile, two speculative novels were nominated for major literary awards: the Man Booker Prize for David Mitchell, and the National Book Award for Emily St. John Mandel.

So, in no particular order, I give you my top ten speculative novels of 2014. And except for Michel Faber, you can follow all of the authors on Twitter.

(I’ve also added my three biggest “duds” of the year at the end of the post, the books that were the most promising, but ultimately, the most disappointing).

areaxArea X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, now available in a gorgeous omnibus volume) was the touchstone of my reading life in 2014. In three vastly different, wildly imaginative books, VanderMeer explores the alien-ness of the natural world and the slippery essence of what it means to be human. For my series of posts on what writers can learn from each volume in the trilogy, head here, here, and here.


stairsCity of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

I love fictional cities with detailed histories, and Bulikov has joined Gotham, New Crobuzon, Nessus, and Ae’gura as one of my all-time favorites. Once the site of countless architectural miracles powered by the Continental Divinities, the capital city is now ruined under the occupation of the Saypuri, a warring nation-state responsible for the death of the Divinities. When the world’s foremost scholar on the (forbidden) history of Bulikov is murdered, a young Saypuri intelligence officer named Shara finds herself at the center of a mythical crisis. Worldbuilding at its finest.


supenThe Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

If Neil Gaiman designed a MYST age, it would probably resemble the labyrinthine mansion in Cantero’s rollicking epistolary, neo-gothic novel. When a European man known only as “A.” inherits a long-lost relative’s estate in the Virginia countryside, he discovers that the previous two owners committed suicide in the exact same way, decades apart. There’s also a mysterious gathering of distinguished gentlemen at the house every winter solstice, a litany of secret passageways, coded letters, and hidden knowledge. Puzzles abound, both physical and narrative, and the mute teenage girl named Niamh–the Watson to A.’s Sherlock–steals the show.

boneThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The author of Cloud Atlas is back with another dizzying novel that bends genres while spanning centuries and continents. Teenage runaway Holly Sykes finds herself in the middle of two warring groups of immortals and the battle for human souls. Sounds trippy, I know, but Mitchell’s story is well-grounded in emotion and place-based detail.



brokenmonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

On a cool November night in Detroit, Detective Gabriella Versado comes across the strangest crime scene of her career: a dead 11-year-old boy whose lower half has been replaced by that of a deer. Their bodies have been fused together into a macabre human-animal hybrid straight out of “True Detective” or NBC’s “Hannibal,” and Versado believes the killer will strike again. Head over to Bookpage for my full review of Beukes’ masterwork. Basically, what if True Detective got even weirder and moved to Detroit?




Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Post-apocalyptic literature has caught a lot of flack recently for being a bit of a dead horse, but St. John Mandel’s National Book Award-nominated novel is a beautiful, fresh take on the genre. After 99% of humanity is wiped out by a superflu, a small Shakespearean theatre company called the Traveling Symphony tours the remnants of civilization. The prose is quiet, sharp, and often achieves the textural density of poetry.




The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

In Mary Dora Russell’s The Sparrow, one of my favorite novels of all time, the first expedition to an alien planet is lead by Jesuit missionaries. Faber’s latest book is about one such interstellar missionary, a man named Peter, brought to the planet of Oasis by a massive corporation in hopes of appeasing the natives, who are clamoring for someone to explain the “book of strange new things” (i.e., the book we call Bible). Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife may not survive a series of natural and social disasters brought about by climate change. As in all of his previous work (particularly Under the Skin), Faber proves there is no line separating “literary” from “genre” fiction. The Book of Strange New Things isn’t just one of the best pieces of speculative fiction, but one of the best pieces of fiction, period, published in 2014.

nigeriansNigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

With a title like “Nigerians in Space”, do you really need any other reasons to read this thing? Fine. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria. In addition to being a slick, weird little SF/espionage thriller, the novel also gives you an authentic taste of life in both Nigeria and South Africa, from the 90’s to the present-day.



lagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Aliens in Nigeria. Need I say more? An unknown object crashes into the ocean just off the coast of Lagos. Okorafor expertly combines science fiction with magical realism and Nigerian mythology in the story that follows, particularly the lives of three strangers on the beach that day: a solider, a celebrity rapper, and a marine biologist.




threeThe Three by Sarah Lotz

Four planes crash for unknown reasons on the same day, “Black Thursday,” in Japan, South Africa, Florida, and off the coast of Portugal. The only survivors are three children, all on different flights. And they seem a bit…different when they return home. A bit…not themselves. A bit horrifying.

I couldn’t put this one down, and I can’t wait for the sequel. Here’s my take on what fiction writers can learn from it.


Duds of 2014:

California by Edan Lepucki. Instead of a sudden apocalypse, the world is suffering a slow, gradual collapse in Lepucki’s glacial debut novel, the vaguely titled CALIFORNIA (is it a travel guide? a state history?). It’s ambitious, intriguing, but all-too-frequently maddening in its dedication to interpersonal minutiae and marital bickering.

The Martian by Andy Weir. What a concept! An astronaut is stranded alone on the red planet, and forced to use his smarts as a botanist/mechanical engineer to survive. Sounds thrilling, if only the novel was as concerned with character and story as it is with math and logistics. Ridley Scott and Matt Damon are adapting it for the big screen, and judging solely from the cast listing, they realized the story needed some more fleshing out.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. Joe Abercrombie’s new Shattered Sea fantasy series has been lauded as “A Game of Thrones for Young Adults.” Narratively, the setup is wonderful, the prose is clean and accessible, and the remarkable twists toward the end are pretty shocking. But the greater world and the greater story behind Yarvi’s adventure is only grazed tangentially, and don’t really impact the present-day story. The worldbuilding is extremely shallow for a fantasy series: the cities have no distinctive sense of place, the geography’s history is only occasionally hinted at, and the mythology is mostly implied. So while the characters jump off the page, the world they occupy is–at least in book one–a fairly generic series of unremarkable set dressings.

What Writers Can Learn from ACCEPTANCE by Jeff VanderMeer


Acceptance is not the book you expect. If you enjoyed the first two volumes in Jeff VanderMeer’s groundbreaking trilogy as much as I did, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about the final chapter. Perhaps you made a mental list of revelations you expect it to deliver.

Throw away that list and forget all those expectations. ReadingAcceptance after the first two Southern Reach books is akin to the grand finale of a fireworks show, but instead of bigger fireworks, you get the coda to Beethoven’s Fifth.

As mankind stumbles further into the twenty-first century, we’re destined for more frequent encounters with the unknown. Whether it’s the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or new forms of life we didn’t think were possible, our understanding of nature is expanding at an unprecedented rate.

But how much are we really capable of understanding? What is the ceiling of the scientific method? How trapped are we in our own minds and bodies?

What else is out there? And what else is already here?

That’s what Acceptance is about: the limitations of human perception in a universe full of unknowables. After the breathless adventure of Annihilationand the claustrophobic chills of Authority, the third and final volume in the Southern Reach trilogy is a New Weird epic, a speculative tour de force that defies classification. Seamlessly spanning multiple decades and points of view, VanderMeer wrings the last secrets out of Area X in a series of shockingly beautiful twists and turns.

So, here are a few aspects of the novel that writers can learn from. I will also have a brief piece on the entire trilogy published in the next issue of the Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction. Be forewarned that there are potential spoilers below if you haven’t finished the trilogy.

Stay Concrete, Except for When You Shouldn’t
Writing students are often urged to stay “concrete” and “low on the ladder of abstraction” in their prose, particularly when it comes to the visual detail responsible for establishing scene, setting, and tone. For the most part, this is good advice, and VanderMeer’s lush descriptions of marshes and salt flats and birds—taken from real-life hikes on the Gulf Coast—demonstrate the power of immersive, hyper-specific details.

But should everything in your fiction be so concrete? Particularly if you’re writing speculative fiction, which dabbles in the unknown and the never-before-seen?

There is a method of stargazing called averted vision, used to spot celestial objects too faint for direct eyesight. The literary technique VanderMeer uses when his characters encounter the unknowable is similar. Take this passage from Acceptance, where Ghost Bird watches something massive approach:

The hillside come alive and sliding down to the ruined lighthouse, at a steady pace like a lava flow. This intrusion. These darknesses that re-formed into a mighty shape against the darkness of the night sky, lightened by the reflections of clouds and the greater shadow of the tree line and the forests.

Note that VanderMeer chooses not to provide a concrete description—not here and not in the pages that follow—and that the…being…is all the more real and interesting because of its slippery nature. Of course, the slippery nature of perception is one of the trilogy’s primary themes, and a common thread in speculative fiction, but it’s also the conceptual bedrock underlying good fiction of all stripes, as illuminated by Robert Boswell in The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction.

Challenge Your First Thoughts and Instincts
All of VanderMeer’s work is surprising in one way or another, but perhaps none more so than Acceptance. Several episodes in particular are just…mind-blowing, but I wouldn’t dare mention them here.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, along with many other how-to guides, extols the importance of surprising readers and audiences in ways that feel inevitable. I’m not Jeff VanderMeer, so I can’t say this for certain, but I doubt all the twists and turns of Acceptance’s plot were “part of the plan” from the time he first began thinking about the story.

There is value in outlining a story before you start writing, in building a road map or a blueprint—no matter how skeletal—to help you find a way through 50-100,000 words. But there is also value in challenging your first ideas.

Having read so many stories, your writerly brain will often instinctively know what happens next, at least by “industry standards”. But sometimes you should ignore those first, instincts. Sometimes you should look for new roads to take. Make an outline, sure, but give yourself the freedom to improvise while you’re writing, to play jazz, to take the story somewhere completely different than you thought possible. That’s how you surprise readers: by surprising yourself.

Get Off Your Ass
VanderMeer couldn’t have written this trilogy from the comfort of his own home. Not without taking long hikes in the Florida wilderness and working some really weird day-jobs.

Sure, the discipline to sit at your desk and write for hundreds of hours is pivotal, and probably the aspect of writing that I struggle with the most. But you know what else is pivotal? Going for walks in the woods. Talking to bizarre people who hang out in bowling alleys. Exploring that random small town a few miles down the road. Reading newspapers and watching science documentaries. And definitely working a few soul-crushing jobs.

To write something interesting, you need to collect interesting material. To borrow one of VanderMeer’s terms, messy real-life experiences provide the “mulch” your fiction needs to blossom.

— — —

I can’t believe the Southern Reach trilogy is over. Word is we’ll see a short story set in the same fictional universe one day, so that’s promising. Did I want more “resolution” at the end of the day? Of course I did. But the books are about that desire to know. It’s what makes us human, and what ultimately fails us.

UPDATE: Another bit of writerly advice from VanderMeer himself, in response: