I return to normalcy at “The Strange, Far Places” after settling with the family into a new home here in Cedar Park, Texas, FINALLY beginning to bring to an end this crazy cross-country relocation process. AND… It’s fitting that I am penning this post from the “library” in our new digs, because today’s reviews are of two absolute PILLARS of modern horror lit.
“I have just discovered Thomas Tryon,” your TSFP author says VERY sheepishly.
How could this have happened? In my meanderings through all things horror… How could I have missed these seminal works of modern horror? How could I have never taken the time to explore Tryon’s work?
Well… I can really offer no excuse. Mea maxima culpa.
I suppose it’s rather like actually trying a genuine NY bagel for the first time… Alllll warm and chewy, piled in bacon / scallion cream cheese. I watched my wife do that one. Or perhaps my first experience with Bananas Foster, the flames uniting the flavors of the dish in sweet perfection. There is a dawning that echoes from the experience and makes one ask “Where the hell was I?”
Tryon is one of those guys who you used to just have to shake your head at. That guy in your dorm at college you didn’t know if you should love or hate. You know the type. You do love him because you want to BE him, but you hate the fact that you can’t. So, you rather jealously remain ambivalent. Tyron had true matinee idol rugged good looks and a successful acting career, so that would be enough for many. But to then leave that burgeoning career to start writing is amazing. Annnd THEN to master the writing game in a truly lyrical way… Well, that’s the stuff that makes you shake your head in awe.
Look at that gent. Damn you… And THANK YOU, Thomas Tryon for being so awesome.
I’m reviewing two of Tryon’s masterworks today, “Harvest Home” and “The Others.” I am thrilled to share these with you. I will review them together because I view them as a perfect one-two KO punch of classic horror perfection.
Here’s what the publisher’s description has to say about the stories::
THE OTHER — “Holland and Niles Perry are identical thirteen-year-old twins. They are close, close enough, almost, to read each other’s thoughts, but they couldn’t be more different. Holland is bold and mischievous, a bad influence, while Niles is kind and eager to please, the sort of boy who makes parents proud. The Perrys live in the bucolic New England town their family settled centuries ago, and as it happens, the extended clan has gathered at its ancestral farm this summer to mourn the death of the twins’ father in a most unfortunate accident. Mrs. Perry still hasn’t recovered from the shock of her husband’s gruesome end and stays sequestered in her room, leaving her sons to roam free. As the summer goes on, though, and Holland’s pranks become increasingly sinister, Niles finds he can no longer make excuses for his brother’s actions.
Thomas Tryon’s best-selling novel about a homegrown monster is an eerie examination of the darkness that dwells within everyone. It is a landmark of psychological horror that is a worthy descendent of the books of James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson, and Patricia Highsmith..”
HARVEST HOME — “After watching his asthmatic daughter suffer in the foul city air, Theodore Constantine decides to get back to the land. When he and his wife search New England for the perfect nineteenth-century home, they find no township more charming, no countryside more idyllic than the farming village of Cornwall Coombe. Here they begin a new life: simple, pure, close to nature—and ultimately more terrifying than Manhattan’s darkest alley.
When the Constantines win the friendship of the town matriarch, the mysterious Widow Fortune, they are invited to join the ancient festival of Harvest Home, a ceremony whose quaintness disguises dark intentions. In this bucolic hamlet, where bootleggers work by moonlight and all of the villagers seem to share the same last name, the past is more present than outsiders can fathom—and something far more sinister than the annual harvest is about to rise out of the earth.”
These publisher’s summaries might feel like stories you’ve heard before, but don’t let that deter you. That’s only because Tryon has proven SO influential. Both of these are landmark works and so many have plumbed their genius to create lesser spawn.
“The Other” is the quintessential sibling / twins horror story. It twists and turns, beguiling and manipulating the reader, allowing us to fall under its spell and then shocking us in a new direction, turning us like . Then doing it all over again. Repeatedly. This is no mean feat. Even the jaded modern reader finds themselves at the novel’s mercy leaving you like you want to read it again when you finish, just to see how Tryon did it. This is real psychological horror.
I think a huge part of Tryon’s ability to beguile us into submission is directly to dazzling lyrical style. This is gorgeously crafted prose. Plain and simple. Look at this quote ::
The icehouse was fronted by big doors, warped and wide enough for a wagon. Leaning against one, he let his weight swing it inward. The interior was cool and dim; sun through the ruined roof sketched in beams, rafters, scaffolding; through the giant hole in the platform flooring, where the blocks of ice used to be hauled up, the river was a lake of murky green. Cattails clustered at the bank, sausages skewered on slender wands. Removing his sneakers, Niles waded knee-deep into the water. A flat bug skittered across its surface, spidery legs tracing intricate geometric patterns behind. Slippery gray mud at the bottom oozed between his toes; he gripped for balance as he edged along a narrow shelf and reached out to break the stalks of the rushes.
With a goodly harvest, almost more than he could manage, he footed his way back along the mud shelf to the loading platform. He dropped the cattails in a heap and lay on his belly beside them, head hanging over the platform edge, eyes staring meditatively down at the water. It was pleasant there in the shadows. It smelled of coolness, like a fern garden; like the well once had before they sealed it up. From upside down, one piling, gloved with green algae and slime, and larger than the rest, seemed to rear back as though resisting the gray mud that mired it. He squinted, looked hard, saw: primordial ooze, spawning strange beings down below, a race of quasi-lunged, half-legged creatures dragging themselves along the bottom; a world sunless, gloomy, nocturnal, where sunken logs lay, sodden and heavy, poor dead drowned things, and with them, hidden in the murk, savage bloated creatures, mouths wide as shovels, thick lips nuzzling threads of water-whitened ganglia, picking clean of flesh skeletons through whose empty eye-sockets coldly glowing eels wound like night trains, while overhead, through the ruined roof, pterodactyls soared the vacant sky.
He drifted, dreamed; and dreamed some more.
Are you even serious??? Muscular. Transformative. Poetic. This lush mastery of language, coupled with a true craftsman’s touch for story creation places “The Other” among the great horror lit canon. Amazing for a debut novel, no less. Sheesh.
Here are a few of the reviews from the book’s entry into the market. I don’t usually include these, but here… I think they made great sense.
“It is perhaps unfair and a little inaccurate to typecast The Other as a horror story. It is so ingenious and well-written that it transcends that—or any—label. The setting is the small Connecticut town of Pequot Landing, which under other circumstances, might be idyllic. But the people who inhabit Tryon’s New England are just as haunted as O’Neill’s, and a lot more violent…His [Tryon’s] characterizations have depth and subtlety, the narrative is well-paced and suspenseful. Where he really excels is with mood and atmosphere. Rarely have such commonplace surroundings been made to seem quite so dark and menacing and chillingly evil.” – Chicago Tribune
“This first novel from Thomas Tryon is a distinguished one, it may well leave you blenched with horror, but it is beautifully, even poetically, wrought, and within its boundaries there would seem an actual divination into the spirit of murderess insanity….In due time The Other will doubtless become one of the classics of horror tales, comparable to The Turn of the Screw.” – Dorothy B. Hughes, Los Angeles Times
“A humdinger… A whirlpool of Oh-My-God horror. Please congratulate Mr. Tryon for me. What a marvelous job he’s done.” – Ira Levin, author of “Rosemary’s Baby”
I could NOT agree more. This is a can’t miss read, perfect for your Halloween season.
RATING ………………. 5 STARS
Tryon followed the 1971 masterpiece of “The Other,” in 1973 with “Harvest Home.” No sophomore slump for this guy. “Harvest Home” is yet another memorable entry into the “Hall of Greats of Horror Literature.” Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place?
Tryon is working with themes of neo-paganism here and rarely, if ever, has the subject been handled so deftly; with such a strong hand. Again, if a story of small town horror and neo-pagan ritual seems like something we’ve heard before, it’s only because other writers have borrowed so liberally from this work. Tryon, in his first shot at it, DEFINES this type of story. Though there are others in that followed, many that we all know well (Mr. King, I’m looking at you with “Children of the Corn”), this is the one to read.
Now, I do have to give props where they are due. The great Lovecraft himself mastered the art of small town northeastern horror and we see that clearly echoed here. And, lest we forget, 1967’s “Ritual” from David Pinner was a HIGHLY deft and influential work along these lines, eventually forming the basis for the horror film classic “The Wicker Man” (which came out a year after “Harvest Home”). So to be fair, Tryon had some weighty predecessors to stand on. However, this book is different, unique, and that’s why it defines the sub-genre for me.
Why? Again, I think it’s the peerless combination of pitch-perfect pacing and intricate plot creation here powered by Tryon’s tantalizingly rich language. The book ingratiates itself to us, working its way inside through pace, allowing us to totally identify with the main characters. Then it draws us in further through the intrigue of plot on top of subplot, layering and texturizing the story. And all of it presented in Tryon’s gorgeous prose. It adds up to something deeply affecting and horrifyingly unforgettable.
That can’t be understated here. This book really is affecting. It got inside me. It bubbles with an inner energy that is at once edgy and subversive, palpably sexually charged, claustrophobic and wonderfully devilish. I literally laughed out loud when I hit the end of this book, reveling in how it toyed with me and the heady mix of emotions that I felt. I have not done this in a very long time, but I reread both the climax and ending of this novel (among other passages) over and over in the weeks after I finished it, unable to dismiss it from my mind.
In all, this is the perfect follow-up to “The Other” and an awesome way to celebrate the harvest season. Read it.
RATING ………………. 5 STARS