I have often stated my opinion that the best horror fiction comes in small doses. The stories that keep me awake at night are not Stephen King’s massive tomes that describe every claw, tooth, and growl of the featured creature, but rather those stories that only hint at what is in the dark. Equally important to an effective story is a sense of place: the ability of an author to evoke the ambience of a small town and the people living in it without the reader having ever visited. In a new book, The Dark Walk Forward by John S. McFarland, the author collects twenty stories that accomplish just such a task.
A majority of these stories focus on characters and events in Ste. Odile, a Cajun community resting on the banks of the Mississippi River. Something is sour in the soil of this small town, and characters, institutions, and even dogs referenced in one story reappear in others. Imagine a hellish Winesburg, Ohio. Misfortune befalls almost everyone who visits the place, and it seems as if evil is woven into the town name. The earliest story chronologically, “Immurement,” occurs in fourteenth-century France in the namesake village of its North American counterpart. It features an unwilling anchorite sequestered from the world who is either mentally ill or demoniacally possessed. After she ultimately takes revenge on the father who abandoned her, the evil inside her crossed the ocean with some of her neighbors and settled in the New World.
Most of the stories are set in the 1920s or early 1930s, with the destructiveness of the First World War as a recurrent backdrop. Five of the stories feature medical professionals trying to correct the mistakes of their prior procedures, but in each case, they ultimate destroy their patient, themselves, or both. The desire of science to sublimate the innate emotional and spiritual expressions of man, including the malevolent ones, is something McFarland repeatedly warns is doomed to failure. The final, titular story of the collection focuses on a young boy who must adjust to the return home of his severely disfigured veteran father. Despite receiving early plastic surgery that attempted to minimize his wounds, the father cannot come to terms with his psychological pain and lashes out at his son and wife. The story concludes in tragedy for the entire family.
Many of the other stories tiptoe at the margins of the supernatural, implying, but never directly stating, that something more than just the mundane hysteria is afoot. For example, “Porphyria” concerns a Hungarian immigrant slowly dying from anemia. He gradually becomes sensitive to light, suffers from receding gumlines that seem to elongate his teeth, and develops a strange craving for blood. When the local community accuses him of vampirism, the concluding page does little to rebut their charge.
The three stories that emphasize this ambiguity to the greatest extent, however, are also the trio operating outside the world of Ste. Odile. “Hakudo Maru” features a nineteenth-century Japanese fisherman mourning the death of his drowned son. He recognizes an approaching tsunami and takes the family boat, their economic lifeline, out to sea to avoid the destruction. As he moves further and further from the shore, exhaustion causes a possible hallucination of a vengeful water spirit. The fisherman finally performs the necessary mourning rituals to acknowledge his son’s death, and the story ends with his cathartic return home to rebuild. “Zana” depicts a wild woman of the Caucasus cast out from her tribe and later enslaved by Abkhazian herders. Even when in the company of others, she is always alone in her existence. As she mourns the death of her firstborn child, her isolation is reminiscent of John Gardner’s Grendel. Finally, “Saturn Devouring His Son” concerns the painting of the same name now hanging in Madrid’s Museo del Prado. Narrated by Francisco Goya, he describes painting as act of exorcism, but also recognizes it will not return an aged man to innocence. It is perhaps the strongest story in the collection.
There are almost no happy endings in Mr. McFarland’s fictional world. As in life, his characters reside in a reality they do not understand and cannot control. On those occasions when revelation modestly appears, continued ignorance would have been preferable. At less than two hundred pages, this book can be polished off in a single evening, but I encourage any prospective reader to go slowly and note the web of references interlocking the stories. This is the author’s first short-story collection, and the quality of these pieces should encourage readers the next time they see McFarland’s name on a bookstore shelf.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]