Quiet Horror is a misnomer. Quiet Horror is quiet in the same way the whisper in the night—while you’re lying alone and awake—is quiet. Rather than relying on jump-scares, shock, or visceral imagery, Quiet Horror seeps under your skin and into your mind and doesn’t let go. Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell, a 2013 nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic, is Quiet Horror of the best sort.
The long prologue tells a tale of teenage summer romance, circa 1960. Teenage courtship is a popular horror trope, not only in movies and books but also urban legend. The experienced horror reader knows teenage passion never ends well, but Rowe’s atmospheric telling compels the reader forward to the inevitable end. The prologue both works as a stand-alone story and lays the base for the following story.
Jameson Browning, the protagonist, tells us, “I want to teach you about fear.” He begins with his childhood. In 1971, nine-year-old Jamie lives in an unhappy home, caught between his bitter mother and peacekeeper father. He has two friends, Lucinda, who insists on being called Hank despite her mother’s efforts to girl-ify her, and Amanda, who lives in his mirror, a little girl with Jamie’s face and voice, she is possibly a reflection of his own dark side. Amanda, at first a sympathetic and protective friend, goes too far, and the terrified Jamie banishes her from his mirror, his life, and his memory.
Jamie grows up and leads the life expected of him—college, a career as a teacher, marriage, divorce. His mother is long gone, and his father is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Hank remains his only friend and source of unconditional love. After a devastating accident, Jamie is left unable to work but with a large financial settlement. He sees an ad for an island in northern Ontario, complete with early nineteenth-century mansion, and with vague intentions of turning it into a bed and breakfast purchases Blackmore Island and Wild Fell sight unseen. Fell, he tells Hank, as an adjective, means “of terrible or evil ferocity,” but he believes the house’s name comes from the meaning of the noun, “a hill or a stretch of high moorland.” At Wild Fell, Jamie discovers bridges between past and present, the supernatural and the natural, and the real and the unreal.
Like the Victorians, Rowe blends the uncanny with the everyday, and the disquieting effect of the supernatural is magnified. The image of Wild Fell and the cliffs of Blackmore Island soaring above Devil’s Lake is pure Gothic goodness, and once Jaime takes up residence in the mansion, the gothic-flavor of the story grows. As we meet the house—and it is a character in its own right—Rowe’s language takes on the voice of his predecessors. It’s easy to imagine a Brontë or Poe protagonist exploring the surprisingly preserved mansion. Jamie takes the Yellow Room as his bedroom. Painted rather than wallpapered, a sunny buttercup yellow deepened by age to saffron, Jamie’s presence there nonetheless calls to mind Charlotte Gilman Perkins and her heroine’s descent into madness.
In 1929, M.R. James, a master of the late Victorian ghost story, wrote, “Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one.” Reticence in horror literature is rarer today than in James’s time, but Rowe masters it and, as James suggested, it produces great effect. Violence and sexual imagery take place off stage or in dreams (for the most part,) and even the graphic—in context of the novel—is mild by current standards. Wild Fell’s power lies in suggestion. Rich imagery and dark atmosphere plant the seeds; anticipation and imagination nurture the growing terror.
Rowe explores contemporary themes—memory, both persistence and loss; gender roles, identity, and fluidity; and abuse, broken families, and damaged adults—and does so with a deft hand, weaving the subjects into the story rather than making them the story. Those who prefer non-stop action, monster battles, or buckets of blood in their horror may find Wild Fell slow going, but those who appreciate atmosphere, the slow burn of creeping dread, and the deeply disturbing rather than the shocking (and those who love a ghost story in the vein of The Turn of the Screw) will find much to love.
Wild Fell, by Michael Rowe.
ChiZine Publications, 2013.
Available in paperback and eBook from Chizine, and the usual sources.