Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell

Cover by
Wild Fell by Michael Rowe. Cover art by Eric Rohr. Cover design by Samantha Beiko.

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.

John Dixon’s Phoenix Island

Phoenix IslandJohn Dixon attended the grad school program in which I’m currently enrolled. He was gone before I started, and other than on social media—where we once had a conversation about the joys of tomato sandwiches (fresh, homegrown tomatoes on toast with mayo and pepper, of course)—we’d never met. When Phoenix Island was released (January, 2014) it went on my To-Be-Read List, but until last month, hadn’t physically made it to my TBR Tower1. In June, I had an opportunity to not only purchase the book, but get it signed by the author. I took advantage of the opportunity.

About a week later, I picked it up, read the first chapter, and knew this was going to be one of those books. The ones that magnify my insecurities and make me wonder why I ever thought I could write. Why I’m wasting my time even trying. I was in the middle of revising a particularly tough part of my thesis novel, and my Evil Inner Voice didn’t need any encouragement. I put Phoenix Island away.

This morning, I left the house and forgot a key piece of my traveling technology arsenal. Other than my phone, with only a 50% charge, I was shut down for the day. No laptop, no iPad, limited Internet—but I did have a couple of books in my bag. Old fashioned, made from dead trees, real, low-tech, no battery or charger needed books. I pulled out Phoenix Island and started reading.

I didn’t even miss my technology. And I’m an addict.

Sixteen-year-old Carl, boxer and orphan, has spent years being shuffled around the foster care system and in and out of trouble. The trouble is always the same—beating the crap out of bullies. After sending a couple of small-town football stars to the hospital and taking the high school team out of contention before the season starts, he’s sentenced to Phoenix Island, a terminal facility. Carl is told this is his chance to turn his life around, either wipe the slate clean or end up in the state penitentiary. What at first appears to be a militaristic boot-camp turns out to be terminal in more than one sense of the word.

F. Paul Wilson’s cover blurb calls Phoenix IslandLord of the Flies meets Wolverine and Cool Hand Luke.” I can’t come up with a better description.

Phoenix Island is a thriller, with an underlying science fiction element, and the pacing is perfect. Through the first half, the story careens forward, and Dixon takes both his characters and his readers to the breaking point, then backs off, leaving us room to breath. But—although the Carl may be lulled into a sense of security, as readers, we don’t trust the calm. We know that we, and Carl, are being set up for something worse. The second half marches forward at a slower pace, but with no less suspense as the situation worsens and the tension mounts, making Phoenix Island difficult to put down.

Dixon is a former Golden Gloves boxer, and I have no doubt fans of the sport will find much to appreciate in his depiction of Carl’s skills. I’m no boxing fan. Although I can watch fictional bouts in movies, I can’t watch people pounding on each other in a real match without looking away. Literary fight scenes are more than jabs and punches and bobs and weaves. The author needs to pull the reader into the moment and make us not only see the choreography of the fight or feel the physical aspect of the conflict, but also experience the mental and emotional, Dixon does. I never looked away. As much as I sometimes wanted to, I had to stick with Carl through every moment.

And then there’s the scene with the spider and another with bugs. Scenes I don’t even want to think about. This is not a bad thing—it’s the result of Dixon’s fine writing.

Phoenix Island paperback
Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition.

Phoenix Island was published as a YA book, and would make a great gift for any young adults in your life, but do yourself a favor and read it yourself. Go. Do it now. You won’t regret it. Devil’s Pocket, the sequel, is set to arrive next spring, and I can’t wait.

Visit John Dixon on the web at his website or on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at @johndixonbooks. Phoenix Island is available at Barnes and Noble and all the usual places in hardcover and e-book. The paperback is due out in December and is available for pre-order.

Phoenix Island
by John Dixon
320 pages. Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.



1. It passed pile status years ago.