Sunday, August 23, 2015

Bears

Crooked Tree by Robert C. Wilson (1980): I'll buy almost any horror paperback with a lurid cover if the price is right. At 50 cents, and with the luridness hidden inside the cut-out cover (and a cutout cover with a full-page illustration inside just screams 1970's and 1980's), Crooked Tree fit that bill. I also thought it was an early novel by Canadian SF writer Robert Charles Wilson, but it wasn't. This Robert C. Wilson is a Michigan lawyer with three published novels over the last 35 years.

Well, would that he published more. This is really a terrific little horror novel. Set in and around the Crooked Tree State Park in the northwestern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Crooked Tree sees ancient evil resurrected and set loose. Yes, this actually is the 'Indian burial ground' trope in action. It works here -- as does any tired trope -- because Wilson invests time and sensitivity in exploring the Native-American culture of the Ottawas whose burial ground it was, and in making Native Americans non-stereotypical characters in the drama.

For the most part, the novel's descriptions of the natural landscape work, with only a few slips into the purple. A real sense of menace builds, and the supernatural menace, once revealed, is fully worked out and logically combated within the rules Wilson has created for this particular manifestation of the supernatural. The tiredness of the Indian burial ground trope also loses its exhaustion by making the unburied menace something that once threatened the Ottawas as well. This puts the whole thing more in line with the mainstream of supernatural literature, in which danger comes from Something Awful that was buried, and not from the vengeful spirits of once peaceful beings.

Wilson doesn't go as far as Martin Cruz Smith did in the excellent, nearly contemporaneous Nightwing: Crooked Tree's protagonist is still a white American and not a native. But the plethora of well-realized native characters makes the novel something special. So, too, the sensitive use of black bears as the main weapon in the menace's revenge: the novel explains many of a black bear's more dangerous attributes while also making it clear throughout that their danger to humanity in this novel has also been caused by humanity. Or the once-human, anyway. The bears, unlike the shark in Jaws, explicitly are described as acting against their nature in their attacks on humans. Naturally, they are shy and only dangerous in very specific interactions with human beings.

There are flaws. The climax could use a few more pages. As in many Stephen King novels, characters with viewpoints contrary to the author's -- in this case pro-leisure-hunting white men -- are drawn as gross, completely unlikable caricatures who meet their just rewards in being killed. They're as bad as the hillbillies in Deliverance, but the hillbillies in Deliverance were at least competent and sketched-in as being resentful of these rich(er) suburbanites vacationing in the place they called home. And Wilson's protagonist travels around so much in the concluding pages to assemble the necessary information to combat the evil that these pages start to feel like a Michigan travelogue.

However, despite its flaws, Crooked Tree is a surprisingly good horror novel from a little-known writer. It skilfully weaves together supernatural horror with natural horror (the menace must work through living beings to get its vengeance). Some segments suggest Jaws on land, but with animals that have become much more dangerous with a human will guiding and manipulating them. And a couple of the carnage-laden set-pieces are startlingly well-done and refreshingly unsentimental about who will die without being exploitative. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Whaddaya know. I started reading this ages ago--bought it for that amazing cover but can't find out who the artist is--but wasn't taken with it all. Good to know it might be worth a second try.

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