by John Huber, 2017
This book starts with a lengthy prolog set in 1936-37 Minnesota, where a young Catholic priest, Father Valenway, takes on a teaching position in a tiny, isolated school. Here the students are all American Indian children, removed from their native culture and force-fed prayer and paddlings until they conform to the doctrines of Rome.
Valenway means the best—or he thinks he does. But really, the children are all so different, so dirty, and so... red. His diary shows how he can barely refrain from shuddering at the sight and smell of these alien creatures he must teach.
Especially one. Especially Cynathryth, the problem child. She curses, she bites, and she taunts those in authority. She presents a great deal of very un-Catholic behavior.
We are given an interesting juxtaposition of two polar views of Cynathryth's condition. The priest swears she's possessed by one of the demons he believes in. The psychiatrist diagnoses her as schizoid and bipolar. Who is right? Whose treatment is more barbaric? The beatings and exorcisms of Catholic priests? Or the leutoectomy of medical doctors?
Interestingly, the two narrators, the priest and the doctor, start to sound alike as the case progresses.
But the heart of the story is set in the current day and concerns a sleepwalking teenager named Reese Pradly. Her psychologist, Dr. Logan Bradbury, fortunately prefers therapy to surgery. The doctor thought she'd cured Reese of her childhood experience of nightmares, night terrors, and sleepwalking. But now those things have returned.
The nightmarish images grow as the sleepwalking Reese asks her father to “let my mother in” and he finds inhuman footprints in the snow. Given the subject matter, it's not hard to make comparisons with Peter Blatty's “The Exorcist” or Spielberg's “Poltergeist”. But let's be clear, this book is better... and more intense. Intense and graphic and horrifying is the only way John Huber writes. He goes places not many would dare to venture.
There's vomiting and bed-wetting and all kinds of stuff spewing out of Reese as the demon acts up. There's violence received and violence delivered. Dr. Logan hides secrets, being sometimes more concerned about hurting Reese's parents' feelings than protecting her patient. The parents are filled with rage and self-loathing.
There's an interesting comparison, at times, between the hunger of the Wendigo and the hunger of nymphomania. Reese's mom is a nymphomaniac and she's convinced she's passed her Sin on to her child. Because Catholics believe that Sin is an inherited trait. One can not help but wonder if Sin is a dominant or regressive gene.
The ending, I confess, bothers me. You see, I had the opportunity to read the original draft of this book and I thought the ending was one of the most clever and insanely intense things I had ever read. Currently, it feels like the best part has been lopped off, and I’ve strongly considered dropping the rating to a 4. But maybe I would not say that if I had not read the earlier version. (However, the updated edition contains photographs of actors in scenes of the novel. How often do you see that?)
Having read this and his “The Big Red Devil”, I've come to a conclusion: I'd really hate to be a woman in one of Huber's books. The men may have it rough but the women always seem to catch the worst of it. Like real life?
I give the book 4.5 stars (but 5+ if it had retained the original ending).
I had read the original, pre-publication version of this book about a year and a half ago, originally titled “You Are My Sunshine”. At that time, I was instantly amazed at the raw, growing intensity of the story. Whether the book was any good or not wasn't even a question. It was one of the most powerful books I have ever read.
But it had a few problems, too. Oddly enough, the narrative had the solution to the problem built in. So I wrote to Huber, explained what I felt was wrong and how I would go about fixing it.
Instead of hunting me down and killing me slowly, as one might expect from a guy who could write “Road of Bones,” John acknowledged the problems and was kind enough to thank me in the credits. I'm honored.