Friday, March 28, 2014

Fallow Ground: Where have you been?

Isolated places still exist in America. Those places that, when you drive through them, you feel disconnected from civilization, that you will never see another living person ever again. Most of Nevada is like that (I know from living there) and so is the section Eastern Washington an North Idaho known as the Palouse (spent some time there, too). Rolling hills of wheat fields, a distinct lack of man-made structures, and blind corners hiding God-knows-what increase the feeling of oppression in the area. It is unique and frightening and lends itself perfectly to a horror novel.

Say hello to Michael James McFarland, author of Fallow Ground (Blood Bound Books). McFarland grew up in the Palouse and his familiarity with the region adds authenticity to this novel. He captures the isolation, the oddity of natural landmarks such as Steptoe Butte, and the sense of simultaneous distance and neighborly concern.

The story includes reanimated corpses, ghosts, moments of brutal violence, creepy children, and other nods to horror traditions. Some of these nods are easy to spot. McFarland was either reading H.P. Lovecraft or watching Re-Animator while conceptualizing his novel. The reanimating serum involved here is clear instead of green but it is not a stretch to imagine McFarland's Smith, Shires, and ultimate reanimated baddy Dunhill having a passing acquaintance with a certain Herbert West. Shires and Smith are complicated villains with unclear motivations and are perhaps even to be pitied. Dunhill, however, is magnificently evil. He takes and restores life at will, sometimes as reward and other times as punishment. As all good horror antagonists go, Dunhill is unafraid to harm law enforcement officials, children, friends, and passers-by as they get in his way.

And for every successfully portrayed villain, we must have a strong hero. McFarland offers a number of options, including sheriffs of two time periods, a valiant mother, and a strong teen girl. Each has triumph and tragedy (and they don't all survive), and each fights against the dark forces infecting Margaret Chambers's farmhouse near Colfax, Washington. Chambers and Sheriff Garrett introduce the story which soon goes back in time to Smith and Shires and a shady deal to give the childless Taylors (the previous occupants of the Chambers farm) a family. One could say that tragedy then ensues but as we soon learn, tragedy was already on-going.

This is where McFarland slips a bit. We shift time and lose track of certain characters. Keeping track of what subplot is the most pertinent gets a bit cloudy until the final hundred pages or so (the book runs a decent 330 pages). Once McFarland focuses on a plot, he regains his strength, which is character and place. The two are difficult to separate because the characters could very well be different people if in a different place and the creepiness of the place is intensified by the people who (sparsely) populate it.

Once could decide that most of the book is backstory and that isn't inaccurate. We accept 200 pages of setup from Stephen King, so why not from McFarland? (The difference, of course, is that King's backstory is usually accompanied by 400-500 pages instead of 100.)

Overall, Fallow Ground is an enjoyable break from bigger names in the genre and proof that creepy happenings aren't contained to New England or the South. The Inland Pacific Northwest is a pretty creepy place, too.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great review, TJ! Hope our paths cross again sometime soon.