Book Review: Those Across The River by Christopher Buehlman

10772903Title: Those Across The River
Author: Christopher Buehlman
Genre: Horror, Thriller, Supernatural, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Publication Date: September 6th 2011
Review copy received from the publisher through Netgalley.
Rating: 4 stars
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Failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife, Eudora, have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family’s old estate-the Savoyard Plantation- and the horrors that occurred there. At first, the quaint, rural ways of their new neighbors seem to be everything they wanted. But there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice.
It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of Savoyard still stand. Where a longstanding debt of blood has never been forgotten.
A debt that has been waiting patiently for Frank Nichols’s homecoming…

Frank Nichols is a veteran of the Great War, a failed academic and a hopeless romantic. His girlfriend Eudora, was actually married to his college professor before he met her and they fell in love at first sight. Traumatized not only by his failing academic career but also by losing his best friend on the battlefield, Frank is determined to start anew with Eudora, somewhere far away from their old life. And what better place to start anew than in the city of Whitbrow, where his ancestor’s estate, the Savoyard Plantation, still lies in ruins but could give Frank enough inspiration to write a book capable of putting him back on the university payroll.

However, once they arrive in the Canary House in Whitbrow and get to know the town’s people, Frank and Dora soon discover the continous feeling of dread wavering over the community. The people in Whitbrow are friendly enough, but they are often unkind to strangers, and they warn Frank occassionally not to venture to the forest beyond the river. But Frank can’t help himself and armed with only a camera, he crosses the river, only to find himself being followed by a strange puberescent boy who throws rocks at him. Although strangely unsettled by the entire experience, Frank tries to hide it from his wife upon arriving back home. But he certainly doesn’t feel like going into those woods any time soon…

Things take a turn for the worst soon enough. When the local community decides to put an end to the monthly tradition of releasing pigs into the woods because of the failing economy, it seems like something from the woods is after the town’s people. It begins by a traumatizing experience in the local school, expands with the gruesome murder on a young boy and ends with the creatures from across the river preying upon the entire village. Frank and his fellow town’s men realize they have to do something against the threat from the woods – but what can they do to save themselves from these monsters?

I have to admit that as soon as I read the premise from Those Across The River, I was intrigued. Usually, monsters hidden in woods or cannibals hidden in hills (The Hills Have Eyes, for example) don’t scare me. More often than not I find myself laughing at this type of horror movies, because they’re so over the top and make the story sound so absolutely unbelievable that I cannot help but laugh. However, this wasn’t the case with Those Across The River, and I realized that from as soon as I opened up the book. The constant feeling of tension and dread is immense and overwhelming, and starts from page one. The entire time while I was reading this book, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for something unsettling and scary to happen. It certainly didn’t dissapoint. The built-up is amazing, and the climax is even more earth-shattering.

This isn’t the slash and kill kind of horror, and I think it could probably be best described as Southern Gothic Horror. Christopher Buehlman has a way with words and prose that both creates a distance between the written word and the reader, making the text sound sometimes distorted and strange – which is always excellent when writing horror, in my opinion, because it adds to the mystery surrounding the why, how and what is attacking the town, in this case – and manages to pull the reader in from page one. It actually takes a long while before we actually find out what is hiding in those woods as a reader: cannibals? werewolves? witches? an ancient tribe? ghosts? But even when the mystery is solved, and we know what exactly is preying upon those poor souls living in Whitbrow, the horror is far from over. In fact, it’s only just begun…

Buehlman’s main characters are strong and well-developed. Frank Nichols is a person with a complex personality: he seems like a brave enough fellow, especially when during a treck to the forests across the river he chooses to stay whereas others chose to leave, but he also suffers from his own less-than-positive views about himself. He doesn’t regard himself as being very much at all, and he often fears Dora will leave him for a better man, a wealthier man or a more educated man. Although his self-confidence is lacking and he often shows a mistrust in humanity in general, he’s also an intelligent, straight-forward and good-natured person eager to help others. Dora is an interesting character as well, although she clearly isn’t as well-developed and complex as Frank. I liked her for her kindness of heart, her ability to feel along with the victims of the assaults and the fact that she could put up with a lot more than I first gave her credit for. I like it when a character surprises me, and Dora definately succeeded in that department.

Those Across The River takes places in 1935 during the great Depression, in the interbellum between the two wars that have ripped the entire world to shreds. Christopher Buehlman portrays this time period excellent and with an eye for detail that is most astonishing. This author really is a master of language, and he’s confident enough in his own abilities to take the time to describe scenes in full detail when necessary or adequate for the story. He also uses a far broader vocabulary than half the horror authors out there, another something I should congratulate him for. As a not-native English speaker, I had to occassionally consider what a certain word could mean, and test the boundaries of my knowledge frequently, which I found exciting to say the least.

Don’t let the soft, cheerful beginning of this novel, with Frank and Eudora settling into their new home as a happy-go-lucky couple fool you. Don’t be mistaken by the good-heartedness of their neighbors and their will to help each other, even through the dark days of the Depression. At its core, Those Across The River is a full-blown, brutal, terrifying and masterfully written horror novel that will keep you thinking about it for days, even after you’ve long finished it. I would not be surprised to see this work somewhere on the list of classics along with Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. If Christopher Buehlman continues to amaze me with his excellent writing skills, eye for detail and understanding of historical events, I will have to name him as my favorite horror author ever. For now, I’m eagerly anticipating his next work, and hoping that it will sweep me off my feet as much as Those Across The River has. Recommended to all horror fans, but not to the faint of heart.


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