In Christoper Buehlman’s Those Across The River, Frank and Eudora move to the small Georgia town of Whitbrow, where they plan to marry. Down on their luck and needing a place to live in the aftermath of them breaking up Dora’s marriage, Frank – a failed academic- plans to work on a book, while Dora teaches school in the community. They set up shop in a house willed to Frank by a dying relative, though they have been warned in a cryptic and rambling deathbed note by the same to never live in the house. Instead of heeding the note and selling, Frank and Dora settle into the slow and easy lifestyle of the town, getting acquainted with both neighbors and local gossip as Frank works on a book centered on his slave-holding ancestor in whom he takes a perverse pride. Of course, by the time they notice something is terribly amiss it’s mostly too late for them to stop what they encounter.
Those Across the River has so much to offer thrill-seeking horror lovers looking for literary turns of phrase to mull over while curled up with their book. Set in the years after World War I, the novel explores terrors both real and possibly imagined as readers learn the toll war has taken on veteran Frank, the insidiousness of racism, the evils of slavery, and the sinister cast of lingering small town sacrifices and rituals. Buehlman’s characters and observations of small town interaction are subtle and rich. The atmosphere conveyed in the book is heavy and foreboding and the perfect set up for a creepy secrets coming to life.
Ultimately the book will hang together based on how much the reader feels the reveal meshes with what went before it, and how they feel about the influences at work in the town. I have to admit that after such a slow and delicious foreshadowing, look-over-your-shoulder spooky build, and wild speculation (on my part), I was disappointed with where it went. In some ways it was intriguing given the make-up and history of the town, but mostly I wished it had gone to a different place where I wasn’t so “meh” about the whole thing. Nevertheless, Buehlman’s writing and characterizations are thoughtful and intricate, and even though the end didn’t quite do it for me, it’s still a worthwhile read regardless. Literary horror fans should give it a try to see if it hangs together for them, and if they come away with a gem. Recommended.