Wednesday, September 7, 2011 Maximum Shelf: Those Across the River

Penguin: Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

The best in Science Fiction and Fantasy from Ace and Roc Books

Join Book Country and put your book on the map!

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Those Across the River

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Christopher Buehlman's Those Across the River, which is a September 2011 publication. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and John McFarland. Ace Books has helped support the issue.


Check out Project Paranormal on Facebook

Books & Authors

Review: Those Across the River

Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman (Ace, $24.95, 9780441020676, September 6, 2011)

Christopher Buehlman's masterful debut novel opens with an unsettling preface: "He came out to see me in the cage because I belonged to him." The caged man mutters that he's not good enough to eat. The man on the outside replies, "Maybe just your heart."

Were it not for that tip-off, one would think that Christopher Buehlman had written "just" a fine novel about a couple from Chicago moving to a small Georgia town in the mid-1930s. Frank Nichols is 36, a World War I vet troubled by war nightmares, a college history professor unable to find work because of his affair with 24-year-old Eudora, who was married to an older, influential professor at Frank's college. When Frank inherits a house in Georgia from his aunt, he and Dora decide a move will give them a fresh start--she'll teach school while Frank works on a book about his slave-owning great-grandfather, Lucien Savoyard, whose ruined plantation is nearby. Their backstory is compelling, and their arch but affectionate conversations à la Loy and Powell underscore their deep intellectual and sexual connection. The small Southern town and its people are well-drawn: Paul Miller, the affable fat man who owns the general store; Miles Falmouth, whose bad back grieves him "positively Ole Tessament"; Sheriff Estel Blake, the compassionate hardware store owner; and Martin Cranmer, taxidermist, chess player, drinker, with his dark beard and ill-fitting cream-colored suit. And a secret. He tells Frank, "You don't know anything about it" when he's questioned about the slave revolt at the Savoyard plantation. "You ought to leave your general alone. Might not like what you find."

Buehlman's prose is moody and lush--sun gleaming through the pines, honey-thick air, the whirr of locusts, sweat- and sex-damp sheets, a milky moon. "The tree shadows stretched long and finger-like on the dirt road that led into Whitbrow as the last light of the day spilled from the west. The few houses that lined the road were really little better than shacks, but even they looked worthy of portraiture with that amber glow washing over their pine-board and tin." He can jolt with a few finely honed lines about the war: "The book of Revelations read like fairy-tale poetry next to this harsh prose." Or, the Huns "ready to send a rosary of lead that could make whole companies kneel." And he can be witty: when Frank asks the storekeeper for wine, he's told there's no wine in Morgan County--"All we drink is the blood of the Redeemer." And shine.

Story, sense of place, drama, sensuality, smoldering prose, characters in both senses of the word, pitch-perfect dialogue--these elements alone would be enough to recommend Those Across the River to readers. But as the preface infers, Buehlmann has a few chilling curves to throw into a seemingly straightforward tale.

First, there's the letter from his aunt willing him the house, but saying that he must sell it. No reason given, just that there is bad blood in Whitbrow, and it will "smell out" what is in him. He ignores her demand--he is disgraced and Dora is an inexperienced teacher. What other options do they have?

Soon after they settle in, Frank goes for a walk through the pine and red clay woods with Lester Goudreau, who's offered to show him the river--the plantation is on the other side--but Lester won't cross the river: "Them woods is deep and mean." Later, Frank and Dora are told about the Chase. It starts at the church, with a hog and a sow decorated with wildflower wreaths, and blessed by Pastor Lyndon. The pigs are led down to the river, followed by the townsfolk singing unfamiliar hymns, and then taken across and turned loose. It seems a bit pagan, but Frank and Dora consider it charming local color.

A few days after the Chase, Frank decides to cross the river and look for the Savoyard plantation ruins, a plan Dora doesn't like, saying the woods aren't friendly. Frank agrees, but still goes, thinking about his best friend, Tom, who died in the war. "We were so goddamned eager to go. We were so stupid." As he walks through the dense forest, he has a feeling of being watched, and finally sees a pale mulatto boy wearing a dirty shirt and no pants. The boy follows him, throws stones at him, and then smiles. His teeth have been filed sharp. That readily convinces Frank to find his way back across the river, ending up at Cranmer's cabin, where the windows are barred and the door is heavy oak. Cranmer tells him to get away, to run home, and stay there. He does, as the moon rises fat and golden.

Frank manages to rationalize everything he's seen, until August, with the town's discussion about stopping the Chase. Times are tight, and a farmer can ill afford to give up two pigs. The debate is heated, but the aldermen finally vote to end the Chase. The morning after the next full moon, though, the town finds that Miles Falmouth's son was killed that night, trying to scare off something that was after their pigs. A posse with dogs leaves to nose out the killer. They find a man, and they think it's over.

In September, five new shovels are stolen from the hardware store, along with some kerosene and rope. The town doesn't have long to wonder why, because the message soon sent to them is unambiguous: SEND THE PIGS--and the medium is horrifying. So 15 men and boys set off for the woods to roust out whoever is responsible for the outrage. Frank is afraid that "whoever" is actually "whatever."

In this spellbinding tale of terror, Christopher Buehlman traces with impeccable pacing the arc from the happiness of a new beginning for Frank and Dora through hints of lurking strangeness in their new town, to full-blown horror as evil is unleashed when Whitbrow's careful balance is upset. One character says to Frank, "Alas. That is a good word. Full of helplessness and beauty." Those Across the River is filled with cowardice and bravery, foolishness and wisdom, grief and grace, and, alas, helplessness and beauty. Buehlman has written one of the best books of the year. --Marilyn Dahl


Tom Colgan: A Balance of Startling Action and Vivid Narrative

Tom Colgan is an executive editor at Penguin. Over a 25-year publishing career he has worked with many authors, including Clive Cussler, Ed McBain and Tom Clancy. He's edited numerous books that have been bestsellers and won Edgar, Anthony and Stoker Awards as well. He's a lifelong New Yorker who is only three days younger than his beloved New York Mets. You can follow him on Twitter @TomColgan14.


How did Christopher Buehlman's Those Across the River come to you for consideration as a possible title for the Ace list?

Stephanie Lehmann from the Elaine Koster Agency sent it over on a Thursday at 5 pm. By 7 am on Sunday I was emailing her to say that I loved it.

What drew you so strongly to the novel?

It's no exaggeration to say that it grabbed me from the very beginning. From page one Chris uses his beautiful writing to create an atmosphere that's foreboding, but at the same time eerily inviting. I've told friends that I would have been happy to continue reading about these people and this town even if no supernatural events ever occurred.

What was it like working with a writer who combines a literary flair reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor, a sure hand for portraying romance and carnality and a penchant for horror?

It's darn strange. I've read a lot of really fine horror novels over the years, but the only writer I can think to compare Chris to is Shirley Jackson. There are few paragraphs in American letters more disturbing than the first one in The Haunting of Hill House. In the same way, the start of Those Across the River is all about atmosphere. Something's wrong with this picture, but you can't tell exactly what it is. As time goes on, the disquiet becomes alarm, then panic, and finally outright terror. Of course, in the end, Those Across the River is propelled as much by the startling action as it is by the author's descriptive powers. It's a really good balance of both.

Were there any specific challenges for you in editing the book?

Not really. Chris had worked with his agent before the book got to me. It was in pretty solid shape when I first received it. I would say that the only big change I made was to the letter from Frank's aunt. As I first read it, the writing was much more elegant. I suggested that it should be less literate. It turns out that Chris had originally written it that way, but changed it before he submitted the book. Great minds think alike.

Buehlman has the ability to slip in a slyly witty aside that can make a reader laugh out loud. He's also very successful with creating vivid sex scenes that have heat but are not explicit. What is it like to edit someone whose effects are so subtle?

It's absolutely exhilarating. The most important thing I can do as an editor is stay out of the author's way. My job is to make sure that the author is saying what he means to say, and that he's doing it in the manner he wants. I may make some suggestions if I think he's going off the track or over the top with something, but, in the end, it's his book. When you work with an author who writes so self-assuredly, it's a pleasure to watch what he's doing.

Have you spent much time in small backwoods Southern towns?

Not a minute, I'm afraid. All my time in the South has been spent either in cities or driving. I have visited several Civil War battlefields, but I hardly think they count.

Now that you've edited Those Across the River, do you find yourself thinking of things not to do on vacations, like driving through small rural towns or disregarding an aunt's clear warnings not to go somewhere?

I will clearly take what my aunt says more seriously from now on. Fortunately the only family curse we seem to suffer from is an inability to agree on anything. --John McFarland


Christopher Buehlman: The Catalyst for Unleashing Hell

Your narrator is a WWI veteran subject to bouts of shell shock. His aunt left him her house in rural Georgia but warned, "Don't come back, whatever you do"; he disregards her orders. What inspired you to take Frank's dual attitudes of "I've seen the worst already" and "I have nothing left to lose," and plant him in Whitbrow, Ga., during the Great Depression?

It's always good to put your protagonists in jeopardy. We call our characters our "children," but authors, particularly thriller/horror authors, are terrible parents. Look what I do to this poor bastard--I send him to the trenches as a teenager, destroy his career, kill his aunt, send him to a creepy little town... and then it gets bad. Why does he go to Whitbrow? I think most of us would under the same circumstances. Funny how bright starlight is when you haven't seen the sun in a while.

In addition to vivid detail of life in a Southern town during the Depression and the pervasive sense of foreboding there, you create an unforgettable portrait of Frank and his wife Dora and their relationship. How soon in your drafts did you realize that their intense connection and threats to it would be central to the plot's suspense?

Their relationship was the starting point. The Greek myth I loosely structured the narrative on is a love story, and I wanted to remain faithful to its emotional content: happiness, loss, beauty-in-loss. I wanted to paint a picture of a love most of us would give anything to have, so we believe it in our bones when the lovers give everything to keep it. I hope those who have been deeply and sexually in love recognize where Frank and Dora are. It's a fragile paradise. But is there any other kind?

Frank Nichols is a historian who comes to Whitbrow intent on writing about his great-grandfather who was killed in a slave uprising. To what extent do you think that Frank's idea that his tools as a historian could help resolve his conflicted feelings of family reflects Audre Lord's haunting statement, "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

Wow. I have never read Audre Lord, but now I want to. I think that statement is quite apt. This novel is not a metaphor for colonialism, though perhaps it contains fair comment on it; once we accept the possibility of supernatural malevolence, is it a stretch to imagine it might be attracted to places of human malevolence? I like Frank because, despite his worldliness, he has a very human (and American) naïveté. It simply doesn't occur to him that he could be making things worse by trying to set things right, or that his identity could be a problem in and of itself. Or even the catalyst that unleashes hell.

You are a poet, playwright, performer and comedian. How did you come to write a novel?

I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember; as a teenager, I wanted to write horror novels, though I only produced a few juvenile short stories I wouldn't show you now even for a big, fat diamond. In my 20s it was poetry and insults--anything I could finish in three-hour sessions while drinking too much whisky and preparing to get into trouble. In my 30s, I discovered playwriting, and found that writing comedic insult material had been a great apprenticeship for full-length stage comedies. Now I see how all of these disciplines have contributed to the discipline of the novel: poetry teaches economy and imagery, playwriting teaches character development through dialogue. Sometimes I wish I'd done an MFA program, but other times I'm glad I took this odd, organic road. Even though I'm a bit balder in my debut author photo than I might have been.

What kinds of research did you do to make your characters so credible as people from those earlier eras of the Civil War and the Depression?

For one thing, I immersed myself in period literature as well as history; I watched old movies. I listened to classic radio shows. It was just as important for me to have the speech patterns reflect the period as to have the things they held or rode in or shot ring true to 1935. Luckily, there is quite a lot of documentation about the social history of the Depression, and even the Civil War. The book I'm working on now takes place in the Middle Ages, so a great deal more invention is necessary when imagining daily life. There's a lot we just don't know. The important thing is not to contradict what we believe we do know.

As for where these people come from, of course they come from me. But if you look, you can find some piece of yourself in everyone; it's just a question of reverse engineering. That self-in-other is what makes art compelling--I see what that painter saw 200 years ago, I feel what those characters feel, so I know the playwright and I perceive the human condition in some of the same ways. Good art moves us because it makes us feel deathless and connected to everything. Wow, that got deep fast. Is it too late to say I modeled the characters after superheroes?

In capturing the variety of these complex characters, did you find your playwriting experience helpful?

I love plays for their immediacy, and the same is true for dialogue in novels. Dialogue can show backstory rather than tell it, and backstory is a necessary evil I think all writers struggle with; too little, and the characters can appear flimsy or poorly motivated; reading excessive or wrongly placed backstory can feel like wading in mud.

But, my God, do I love writing dialogue. It's hard sometimes to leave off the speech and re-immerse my reader in the physical place, but I have to; they don't, after all, have the benefit of seeing a set, costumes or gestures; but I know that when an author strikes the tight-wire balance between dialogue and narration well, the prose really sings.

As a writer preparing for a tour in support of Those Across the River, are you tuning up the performance skills you developed during your days on the Renaissance Festival circuit as Christophe the Insultor? Will you be morphing into a kinder, gentler version of the beloved Christophe?

Ha! You know, I compartmentalize my writing and performance personas to such a degree that I think Christopher Buehlman the reader of his novel will be almost unrecognizable as Christophe the Insultor, verbal mercenary. But I'm not sure I would be the best guy to heckle.... --John McFarland

Here's Christopher Buehlman discussing Those Across the River.

Book Brahmin: Christopher Buehlman

Christopher Buehlman was born in Tampa, Fla. After earning his bachelor's degree in French from Florida State University, he established his versatility as a poet, playwright, performer and comedian. On the Renaissance Festival circuit, he took on all comers as the verbal mercenary Christophe the Insultor. He is the winner of the 2007 Bridport Prize in poetry and his web site provides a generous sample of his work prior to the publication of Those Across the River (Ace, September 6, 2011). He lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife, actress Geneva Rae, and their rescued dog, Duck.


On your nightstand now:

The Plague by Albert Camus.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Plague by Albert Camus. (kidding). The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. I remember being particularly charmed by Bilbo Baggins, suffering from a cold, telling well-wishers "Thag you very buch."

Your top five authors:

Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shirley Jackson, Anthony Burgess, Neil Gaiman. Stephen King if I get a sixth, but I don't think even he would want me to bump any of the others. Except maybe Neil Gaiman.

Pretty meat and potatoes list, I know. I just saw Jesse Ball, a startlingly good poet and author of The Curfew, give a reading in Milwaukee, and he listed Julius Caesar and Basho. I want to be that guy when I grow up.

Book you've faked reading:

The Scarlet Letter. Christ, I couldn't. I would have almost rather done 11th grade again, even if it meant listening to another year of Ms. Vernotzy telling us that we'd get a C on any piece of writing wherein a sentence began with "There," or making us read an article about how Joan Baez was a superior artist to the Rolling Stones, even though her bias was 10 years stale, as my generation was already on The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. It must be bewildering trying to keep up with teenage trends when you're nearing retirement.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I'm glad she wrote that delightfully nuanced, fascinating postwar ghost story, if only because I was getting tired of hearing myself say that nobody was writing literary horror anymore. Sarah Waters is.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Any tattoo magazine with an attractive tattooed woman on the front, i.e., any tattoo magazine.

Book that changed your life:

Had to be The Shining. A teacher in middle school used to tell us ghost stories on Fridays if we had behaved to his satisfaction during the week; his favorites were Stephen King vignettes, which he watered down enough to avoid litigation. I already had a skew toward the dark, both in humor and in what I liked to watch on TV or read. Now that I had been indirectly exposed to this King person and his stalking hedge animals and revenant bullies, I wanted to go to the source and read him for myself. I picked up my first copy of The Shining at the neighborhood TG&Y when I was 10 or 11--I remember the cover was silver and had a faceless boy on the front. I say "my first copy" because that one got confiscated and I had to get another one on the sly. I lost the original because I was simple enough to ask my father, retired navy man Joe Buehlman, what a "prick" was. He never told me the definition, but he might have been tempted to say "Why, son, whoever sold you that book is a prick."

Favorite line from a book:

 " knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water...." --Lolita.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I was on a trans-Atlantic flight to accept the Bridport Prize in England, and I never sleep well on planes (6'2", all legs), so I just dove in and didn't come out until we touched down; I was halfway through it. It rained like a bastard the whole time I was in Bridport--my plans to explore the Jurassic coast on foot metamorphosed into afternoons at the pub, book in hand, ale on table--not a horrible way to pass rainy afternoons. Curiously, the irony of going to England to read a book called American Gods only just occurred to me, right about when I typed the word "ale.'"


Powered by: Xtenit