Saturday, February 2, 2008
Beth Massie's HOMEPLACE
Beth Massie is known for writing a wide variety of types of fiction — from cutting-edge horror to historical drama to young adult adventure tales. In general, Ms. Massie's horror fiction tends to be very dark and frequently centers around characters with severe warpage of the mind. It's almost a surprise to find that Homeplace is about as traditional as traditional gets — at least when you're talking about haunted houses, ghostly goings-on, long-dead witches, and small-town settings filled with small-town characters.
Very slight spoilage follows.
Her life in something of a meaningless rut, artist Charlene Myers retreats to her ancestral home, known as Homeplace, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to restore herself. She has vague memories of unpleasantness there as a child, but once she settles in, that old perception takes on a new and disturbing vividness — particularly when she finds that a number of the locals believe that Homeplace was once home to a rather nasty witch and that Charlene must surely be following in those old witchy footsteps. A young lawyer named Andrew Marshall, himself a relatively recent transplant to the small town, befriends her and offers her emotional support as she experiences one inexplicable event after another — at least until Charlene herself begins to behave in such bizarre fashion that even he must doubt her sanity. Finally, however, the supernatural power in the old witch house sweeps up the both of them, and neither knows the means to either combat or escape it.
I've always been a little put off by characters who talk to themselves. It's usually a cheap and too-obvious means for the author to explain the character's motivation or propel one scene to another. Charlene talks to herself quite a bit, and at first, it hit that sensitive annoyance nerve I have right behind my left ear; fortunately, it doesn't take long to realize that it's part of her psychological makeup, a symptom of her emotional and physical isolation. Charlene is a somewhat damaged character, but not so far gone that you either pity her or write her off as hopeless. She has occasional moments of sullenness that make one want to smack her around a bit, but most often, she redeems herself by facing the issues confronting her with reasonable pragmatism.
Andrew is a closet novelist, and not a very good one. There are numerous excerpts of his writing, which in abstract ways reflect his thoughts on the goings-on around him. The snippets are a little overdone at times, and I think Ms. Massie included them just to convince us readers that, yes, he really is trying to write, rather than expect us to take her word for it. I might have striven to find a happy medium, but it's really a small matter. As a character, he is both believable and sympathetic (despite his being a lawyer), and his perceptions of Charlene help to define her character as much as his own.
In classic fashion, Charlene goes up against the evil that inhabits Homeplace, and the showdown is part High Noon, part It, and the stakes are high for all involved. After a relatively slow pace since page 1, the supernatural big gundown comes on fast and hard, almost jarringly so. From there, events again play out a bit slower as we move toward the end. On the whole, it all works, showing that Ms. Massie is well-versed in plot-pacing and generating atmosphere. Given the events of the story as a whole, the resolution gives us exactly what we might expect. No silly contrivances, no boogies suddenly jumping out of shadows to clue us in that it's not really over. In that regard, it's a successful means of wrapping up the drama.
I enjoyed Homeplace a lot, in large part because the setting Ms. Massie builds is so close to places I've known and cared about in Virginia. (She and I have trodden a lot of the same ground over many years.) The characters are people we might meet on the street, some of whom we'd like and some we wouldn't. In the time it took to read the novel, I enjoyed myself quite a bit. Definitely time well spent.
Click here to view Beth Massie's Homeplace book trailer.