A Review of Samuel Snoek-Brown's Hagridden
by Paul Adams
Samuel Snoek-Brown’s Hagridden starts with an ambush in the marshes; two women bayonet a Union soldier with practiced ease, and then do the same to the Confederate soldier who had been hunting him. They strip the bodies and tip them into an old well and then sell their worldly goods to an unscrupulous bayou shopkeeper. We are told that this takes place in Western Louisiana in the waning days of the Civil War, but it might as well be happening in the Middle Ages or on the moon. This is not a complaint; this book’s sense of timeless and universal horror is one of the things that makes it such a powerful work.
There is a strain of Gothic dread running through 20th century Southern literature, and it is clearly visible in Hagridden. Stylistically, the novel owes something to Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy: oppressively lush landscapes, dialogue lacking all punctuation, and sometimes jarring contrast between characters’ rich inner lives and their spare, gnomic utterances. When novelists use this style poorly, the result can be almost unreadably dense. When done well, as it is here, it creates a sense that the reader is looking into a separate and complete world, eerily similar to our own but tilted slightly toward the abstract. The characters’ actions become inevitable and weighed down by the burdens of past and future. Things become symbols of themselves.
Despite this metaphysical heft, Hagridden is a lively and fast-paced read. Events unfold according to the book’s interior logic, but the ending nonetheless took this reader by surprise. The murderous peace of the two women (who never receive names: they are “the woman” and “the girl”) is shattered by the return of their neighbor Buford from the war. He is the best friend of Remy, a character whose absence haunts the book. Remy was a son of the older woman and husband to the younger and joined the Confederate Army with Buford. When the war reached its final madness, they deserted together as well.
The war is presented as brutal folly, but swirling in its outer darkness are truly infernal forces. Buford is pursued by Lt. Whelan, the commander of a group within the army who committed certain enormities while wearing the skins of wolves. Calling themselves ‘rougarou’ (one of several instances in which Snoek-Brown uses appealing and accurate Cajun-isms), they terrorized soldiers and civilians during the war and have now given themselves the task of tracking down deserters. Since the protagonists of the story are serial killers (albeit motivated by hunger and despair), the villains must be literally monstrous. Whelan, who seems to be at least partially consumed by his rourgarou costume, is an excellent and well-rendered character, combining elements of the Viking berserker, the cannibal, the werewolf, and the 20th century war criminal.
Whelan is in many ways the character who is most eloquent in speaking for himself, and some of the best passages involve menacing conversations he carries on with strangers during his hunt for Buford. His deliberate and dispassionate will to violence brings to mind the fatalistic killer Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. One chilling passage describes in detail the process by which Whelan tracks, kills, and skins a wolf before using its remains to carefully craft the new mask and suit that he will wear to hunt Buford.
The attention to the rougarou suit is well done, since it will come to play an important role in the awful escalation of events that bring the book to its climax. The drama of Whelan’s hunt for Buford is an outer circle orbiting the inner circle of domestic conflict between Buford and the two women. The young widow finds herself attracted to Buford (no wonder, given that the only other men in the area are a werewolf, a lech, and an ex-slave whose head was kicked in by a horse) but is unwilling to abandon the older woman, to whom she is bound by ties of marriage, murder, and mutual suffering. The older woman blames Buford for her son’s death and is terrified of being abandoned.
These tensions are worsened by guilt and mistrust, reaching a crisis point when an apocalyptic hurricane hits Louisiana and the resulting flood carries Buford’s shack across the state line into Texas. The young widow (having eloped) is carried along with him, and the forcible separation of the two women leads them to very different conclusions about the way forward. The pleasure of seeing the ending unfold precludes any further plot summary, but Buford, Whelan, the two women, and the rougarou come together in a way that seems both utterly inevitable and completely unpredictable.
Hagridden is not entirely without flaws. Snoek-Brown has a point to make about the eternal suffering of women in war time and the ways in which they can fight against it; depriving the women of names may have been the right decision. It makes them iconic figures who can stand in for the many women who are absent from history but were forced to make impossible choices without aid. Unfortunately, it can lead to confusion. It is sometimes hard to tell which woman is speaking or who is taking action; conversations between the two can be difficult to follow. This is not insurmountable but occasionally requires the reader to start again at the top of the page.
It is also possible that in becoming nameless symbols, the women have lost some of their singular identity. This is especially a concern with “the older woman,” who somehow seems less whole a character, or at least less able to speak for herself than the other characters. This is partly her personality—taciturn, ineloquent, enduring. Yet the reader wishes for more of a sense of her inner life and more insight into what drives her. As the story progresses, her behavior becomes increasingly interesting and unexpected, but her motivations remain opaque.
None of this detracts from the overwhelming quality of this novel’s craftsmanship or the beauty of its prose. There are details of almost hallucinatory vividness, and marvelous turns of phrase are everywhere (opening the book at random twice led to “he gored the muck from beneath his fingernail” and “he asked if any recognized the items or knew where he might find their like.”) Despite the desperation and menace that pervade this novel, a dry humor often seeps through in unexpected ways. With radical empathy towards deeply flawed characters and an ability to find the exquisite in the mundane, Snoek-Brown has created a complex and brilliant novel. Though its themes are dark and horrifying, there is a great deal of beauty in this book.