Paul Adams

A Review of Hagridden

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.

Reckoning with Reckoning by Rusty Barnes

By Paul Adams 

The northern tip of the Appalachian region juts all the way up into the state of New York and encompasses a goodly portion of western and southern Pennsylvania. Physically close but culturally distant from Amish Country and the Liberty Bell, this area has more in common with West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee than with the East Coast. Resource-rich and money-poor, it is a place of great natural beauty, stubbornly independent locals, and sometimes shocking violence. This is the setting of Rusty Barnes' first novel, Reckoning.

Having been raised in that area, the reviewer can attest to the precision with which Reckoning captures its physical and human geography. Barnes nails it, with an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for both the broad strokes of the environment and the little details that bring a place or character into focus. From the CDs on a shelf to the color of a rough girl's nail polish to the rinsing-off of dishes taken from under the couch, Barnes is able to parlay incidentals into a complete and vivid picture. By family tradition, a house has no bathroom doors. A boy is told to keep out of trouble by shooting ants with a pellet gun. Families who've lived in town for less than a century are still “flatlanders.” This world is wholly realized and presented through the carefully crafted mind of a teenage boy.

Reckoning is the story of an ordinary summer in the life of Richard Logan and its sudden interruption by chaotic forces of sex and violence. He and Katie, the new girl in town, come upon the naked body of an unconscious woman in the woods. This is Misty, a well wrought character combining jaded vulnerability and bruised innocence with the hard bark of a girl who has seen too much. Helping her back to town, they unleash a series of events, which draw them into conflict with a local thug, Lyle, and his criminal associates. Beset by conflicting adolescent urges and dangerous curiosity, Richard finds himself drawn ever deeper into the ugliness and darkness beneath the surface of the town while those he loves begin to suffer the consequences. The idle summer days become complex and troubled as the story rushes to a harrowing conclusion.

Barnes has previously published two collections of short stories and brings those skills to his first novel, which has a brisk pace and increasing momentum. As the novel unfolds it reveals many facets: coming-of-age tale, love story, mystery, character study, and dark revelation. Reckoning works because it takes the time and energy to establish a believable world and real characters, and then begins to dismantle the facade of that world and interrogate the true nature of those characters. It also works because it is true to its setting and to its narrator. Barnes' depiction of a small town in a rural area has all the expected horrors (pill addicts and scamsters and deers butchered in the front yard) but it is not a caricature of rural idiocy. Neighbors may snoop and scold, but they come to your defense and have philosophies of life and codes of honor. Characters act with dignity and depth, and the human and physical landscapes are beautifully sketched.

This is not a take-down of small-town Pennsylvania, but an exploration of the painful loss of innocence and the danger of peeking behind veils.  Although Richard lives the aimless and  insular life of an Appalachian adolescent, he is a bright boy with an intuition that there is something more. This fateful curiosity leads him to the novel's frightening climax, but also to meaningful connections. He is fascinated with the new girl Katie and the troubled out-of-towner Misty partly because they are part of another world. Richard's life has been limited to the very convincingly rendered small town in which no one is a stranger and secrets are impossible to keep. Barnes has done well in driving this point home, making Lyle not just a menacing criminal and an antagonist, but Richard's boss and boyfriend to Katie's mother. All the characters are connected by blood, history, or geography, and this lends the novel an air of claustrophobic suspense.

Although this book is certainly part of an Appalachian literary tradition, containing echoes of Pinckney Benedict's Dogs of God and some early Cormac McCarthy novels, the recent work which most often came to mind while reading it was Adrianne Harun's A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, which is set in British Columbia. Another first novel by an author better known for short stories, it is also narrated by a small-town boy from a rural area who is faced with an evil thug and a paralyzed community. Although profoundly different in many ways (Harun is more given to post-modern meta-fiction), both novels deal with a young boy discovering evil and questioning whether and how to confront it. More similar in form is the “literary thriller” A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, which has multiple narrators but echoes of Reckoning’s excellent dialogue and some of the same issues of rural youth and community secrets.

If this novel has a flaw, it is that Barnes seems to not entirely trust his audience. At the conclusion of a chapter full of well-crafted dialogue, keen observation, and Richard's own astute perceptions, the reader is told that “He felt as if he and Katie could be friends, but there was something else there too, complicated by Misty . . . they found her so vulnerable. But she talked tough.” There is nothing wrong with this, and in a lesser novel or a genre work it might be necessary to advance the plot or hammer out a character. In this case, however, Barnes has already given the reader all of that information and more; we have heard Misty's tough talk and observed her contradictory behavior and have seen Richard's conflicted attitudes toward his tom-boyish girlfriend and this intriguing older woman.  Barnes has very effectively brought the reader into this adolescent mind, and it is jarring to hear that “he was running on an internal compass that he trusted to point him the right way to go”, since this remark pulls the audience out of Richard's mind and seems to suggest some outside observer. The author has already shown us the boy's peculiar motivations and code of conduct through his actions, conversations, and scattered thoughts, so this isn't really necessary. The prose stands on its own, without the need for summation. This is, of course, a fine sort of problem to have, since it arises directly from the effectiveness and quality of the work.

This is an outstanding work which is simultaneously exciting and thoughtful. Strong on dialogue and atmosphere, it is recommended for the general reader but essential for anyone interested in the Appalachian region or its culture. At a compact 239 pages, this suspenseful novel moves quickly to a devastating climax  that will leave readers appalled but satisfied. It is a crisp and engaging story with fully developed characters, striking images, and an appealing wit.