Some people went to Mecca, some to Jerusalem, some to the Ganges. Austin was going to Maynard’s house. No matter where in life he was to go from there, he was obliged to see Belden first.
Austin Fletcher is a Vietnam veteran, adrift, footloose, suffering from PTSD, and estranged from his parents whose commonplace life centred around TV and other banal, ordinary things, he is now unable to comprehend. When the novel opens, he is on his way to a place called Belden in Maine to claim his ownership over a house that his friend Maynard had bequeathed to him prior to his death in Vietnam. The train that he is travelling in stops before reaching Belden because of a snow-storm but Fletcher is determined to reach Belden and thus armed only with a lantern and a few pieces of chocolate, he decides to brave the elements. So yes, he is suicidal too.
When finally with the help of Good Samaritan, Jack Meeker, station-master, post-master, and other jobs-master, he reaches Maynard’s House he finds that it is a cabin in the wild, well-stocked (and with a wonderful collection of books too) but with no neighbouring houses and no electricity. Further, there is a tree outside that Meeker says is a Witch’s Tree which casts no shadows. And if that was not enough, Meeker also tells him that the house itself was a witch’s house that can never be properly burnt away. Fletcher doesn’t know whether or not Meeker is pulling his leg and when he asks him point-blank, Meeker is non-committal though he does ask Fletcher to return with him. Fletcher refuses and decides to rough it out. (Please go back, I was shouting at this point).
Fletcher tries to settle in but finds many things unsettling. The previous owners of the house have left their comments on living in it and except for Maynard, all seem to have been filled with some sort of tension and dread, the same dread that Fletcher experiences in the night when he hears the rocker creak in the next room as also other little things which can make darkness menacing. He is also troubled by a girl called Ara who appears at intervals with her brother and for whom he feels an attraction he cannot resist. Yet when she finally allows him to kiss her:
He kissed her and it was fine. No arms, no bodies pressing. Just mouths, just lips. His still cold with shock and fear, rigid and leathery, his physiology yet to catch up with the moment. Hers more malleable, moist and receptive, parting softly but not enough to give him entrance. And they hung there like that, the pair of them, like two kids playing Pass the Orange, no hands allowed.
But if she did not take his tongue, that was not true of his breath, for she inhaled of him, at first most delicately, almost imperceptibly, without his knowing it, until he felt himself snaking down her throat, sucked in as if by a vacuum, his entire soul losing its hold on the outside world, all of him seemingly stuck on something wet and reptilian and inexorably retracting.
He was as an insect, death-dancing on the point of a lizard’s tongue, and if he could not break free of it he was doomed to whatever undefined inner recesses lay beyond the sweet red lips and the fine white teeth.
So just what has Fletcher inherited?
When I picked up the book, I thought, looking at the blurbs that it was going to be a horror story, something that would send shivers down my spine. Unfortunately, the book meanders quite a bit and one doesn’t know whether one is reading a ghost-story, a man-against-the-wilderness tale of survival, or a tale that exists only in a troubled man’s imagination. Perhaps reading at some other point of time, I’d have enjoyed the ambiguity presented by the novel but right now, I just want something much more straight-forward. All in all, I was left underwhelmed, in much the same way as when I saw Summer of ’42, a movie that everyone raved about and which I have come to know is written by the author of this book: Herman Raucher.
Have you read it? What are your thoughts?
First Line: The train aimed itself devotedly along, nudging snow from the beckoning rails while the vanishing point ahead kept retreating like a playful Lorelei.
First Published: 1980