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Little Sister Death

Fiction | Novel
224 pages
5.4” x 8.6” Hardcover
Also available in ebook and paperback formats
ISBN 978-1938103131
First Edition
Review Copy: Hardcover
Dzanc Books
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Available HERE
Review by Eric Shonkwiler

I was deeply saddened to hear of William Gay’s passing, early in 2012. I’d enjoyed most of his work up to that point, and was looking forward to a novel, The Lost Country, which appeared to be caught in limbo, and seemed doomed to stay there once Gay died. I was cheered, then, to hear that Dzanc Books had acquired not only The Lost Country, but another novel, Little Sister Death.

Taking place on an interpretation of the real and supposedly haunted grounds of the Bell family farm in Adams, Tennessee, Little Sister Death intertwines the story of writer David Binder with the past encounters of the farmers and groundskeepers of the Beale property. Binder is a moderately successful literary author, stuck in his sophomore slump, when his agent suggests he write something genre to make a little paper. Binder considers this, remembering the tales of the Beale haunting from his childhood in Tennessee, and dives in, moving his wife, Corrie, and daughter to the Beale property itself, now mostly in ruins. What follows is at times a traditional gothic horror and, at others, a distant dissection of the same.

Little Sister Death cuts back and forth between past events and Binder’s tale, and it’s these chunks of old horrors that really seem to motivate Gay in ways his readers know. In particular, a longer section relates the latest encounter with the Beale specters in 1930, following a seldom-do-well farmer named Swaw, and his passel of children. Swaw’s section is the traditional horror portion of the story:

He told himself he wasn’t going to look when he passed the graveyard. If you don’t look, it won’t be so, he told himself. He looked anyway and there was a girl sitting on Jacob Beale’s tombstone, plaiting her long blond hair. She was watching Swaw with bold eyes out of a pretty, sullen face, and when she arose the pale fall of her hair swung behind her. She beckoned him.

Binder’s sections tend to move a little slower, with a kind of detachment that is perhaps evocative of Binder’s mindset but not of telling any story, or even getting close to a character. Binder researches, explores, occasionally envisions the spirits of the Beale property, but nothing accretes into a palpable arc, no real development of any character occurs. There is, at best, only Binder’s descent. In the book’s lovely introduction, Tom Franklin (Poachers, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.) calls these sections “chilling,” but there is a disconnect between Binder’s distance from his family—and, perhaps, from society—and the building horrors of the Beale property, which are, in fact, one method of connection between Binder and his family. One night, the Binders sit watching Winnie The Pooh, and the cartoon turns horrific for only Binder and his daughter, Stephie. This is one of the few truly ghastly encounters, and besides those, the days come on with a slow roll built for a much larger book. Corrie observes, in her stationary manner:

But mostly the way one day segued into the next, each the deadly same, the hot sun baking everything, the white dusty road empty as a broken promise, not even a Bible salesman or a lost tourist to break the monotony. Days came and they went and she forced the inevitable frustration out of her mind, almost physically pushing them away, thinking, it’s only for the summer, one summer out of all the summers of our lives.

Near the end of the novel, Gay eschews the Binders’ young daughter entirely, sending her away to relatives while Binder and Corrie finish the summer on the Beale property. This should precipitate Binder’s The Shining-style descent into madness, but that never quite comes. The haunting built up in the past sections of the book never strikes with the same power, leaving the reader waiting for a horror that is instead switched out with emotional distance—feeling like the payoff for an entirely different story. The climax of the book involves the injury of Binder’s brother-in-law by a copperhead, and from there the book essentially fades to black. An epilogue of sorts follows in the form of a straightforward telling of the lore of the Bell Witch. Gay’s horror story, at times genuinely frightening, jaw-clenching, finishes like the scrolling explanation at the end of a movie.

There has always been a sense about Gay’s prose that there exist dimensions that he’s never quite gotten around to exploring, and Little Sister Death is proof of that, showing the distant edges of those areas of thought, more clinical and clean than his familiar Faulkner/McCarthy stomping grounds. Despite this, much of the artistry here comes in that easily-recognized form. Often enough, many of the poetic phrases can be traced back to one of McCarthy’s works, lifted almost wholesale. And while Gay has always had a knack for treading on the lower side of the road than those heavyweights, and working that territory to his advantage (Gay’s The Long Home is an eminently more readable version of The Orchard Keeper.), here these McCarthyisms just feel watered down, absent-minded. Coupling that with a segmented story that never really gathers steam—let alone anything more material—Little Sister Death feels like an exercise, rather than a book. It’s unfortunate that Sister is the lead horse in Gay’s posthumous works, but readers should feel confident in looking elsewhere in his oeuvre, and continue to hope for what may come in The Lost Country, as well as a rumored third posthumous novel, Stoneburner.

Eric Shonkwiler is the author of the novel, Above All Men, chosen as a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, and the Luminaire Award for Best Prose-winning short story and novella collection, Moon Up, Past Full. His second novel, 8th Street Power & Light, is forthcoming from MG Press in fall 2016.

• This book was sent to the reviewer from the publisher at the request of the reviewer, who has previously enjoyed the author’s work and expressed interest in reviewing the book. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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