Forgotten Novels of the 80’s Horror Boom (3): THE ISLAND

2567117 So I’m rather predictable with my reading habits. Winter knocks on the door, and I answer it with a horror novel in hand. Not a horror novel about possessed children tearing apart the All-American family; or of genetic mutations running rampant in the NYC sewer system; or about a serial killer stalking the summer night, and the reluctant detective on his blood-soaked trail. Instead, in hand is a novel set in the winter where a brutal snowstorm cloaks a small town, permeates the collective mindset of the town’s inhabitants with a subtle dread, one in which builds towards the climax with masterful strokes of nuance and suspense. Yes, a rather quiet horror novel, not a loud one with its fangs constantly bared.

However, what one desires in a book can be illusory at best, and what actually happens in the pages can be like a puzzle without gain – words, motivations, characters all lost on the reader. Suspense becomes secondary. Nuance loses its aim and the ambiguities turn the text towards a head-scratching detour where the narrative encounters a brick wall. T.M. Wright’s ‘The Island’ is one of these books. Everything element is present – a gold mine of horror trademarks. We have a house in the lake, one in which broke free from its hold on a small island shore, and is now a haunted relic submerged below the dark waters. We have characters from the big city trying to lose themselves in nature; and with hopes to find some inner peace, only encounter something alien, something cold and distant, something hungry. We have the widow waking at midnight, and who finds herself chipping away at the ice with a pick-axe, as if to free something from its seclusion. We have a new mother holding her child and wondering why it always so cold to the touch.

T.M. Wright does well conjuring up some great images.

‘The ice around the hole heaved upward; first the woman’s shoulders, then a long, naked arm appeared above the surface of the ice. Her mouth opened still wider, the way the mouth of a snake opens wide to accept its prey.’

ghost-story_1981_stills_06-1However, the main problem comes in the characters, and the dialogue, both internal and external, that really hinders the novel. Take for instance a character staring into the mirror, contemplating her eyes and how they look.

‘And then her eyes caught her. They were soft blue, like his, she thought. They were like his. They were his. But what were the reflections of eyes? They were like photographs of eyes. They were no one’s eyes. They were everyone’s eyes. They were what they were. Eyes collected the light, if there was any. If there was any. There was none here.’

Perhaps, in some strange way, Wright has created a novel about indirectness, a failure to communicate. Especially with the main character, Arnaut Burge, the owner of the hotel, who no matter how hard he tries, can’t really express himself directly. We don’t know what country he’s from, yet we question why his English is so bad after decades of living here in the States. And why does he talk in extravagant riddles? Why can he create countless palindromes yet can’t manage to speak the most simple sentence? I can see Wright is having some fun with Arnaut, however, after a few pages the humor was lost, and he ended up sounding like a brain-damaged cousin to Inspector Clouseau.

Maybe Wright is intentional in showing his characters talk in obtuse angles – marbles in the mouth. Maybe it is the cold permeating from the lake that makes everything vague, indistinct – marbles in the mind. There is something buried under this book, something that makes it completely unique from other horror books at the time. But while it tries to rewrite the ghost story in a dream-like, unclear state, the result in the end is a bit sloppy. Do I recommend the book? Yes. Do I hold it high in the horror canon? Not necessarily. I’ll remember some of the vivid images Wright has painted here, as well as the promise I felt reading the first few chapters. But by the end, there are no clear lines, and while what can’t be explained – the supernatural unknown to the minds of the living – the tension falls wayside and the book becomes a muddled array of promising horrors.  Last year’s winter read, ‘Dead White’ by Alan Ryan may be a better selection to fulfill your desire for a ghost story set in a blizzard, or perhaps, a more recent work by Christopher Golden. But give ‘The Island’ a chance, and maybe you as a reader can figure out some of the riddles that went over my head and into oblivion.

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