Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Farm by Scott Nicholson (Southern horror)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

For a handful of years, horror author Scott Nicholson released a paperback original each year through Pinnacle Books. He quickly became one of the genre's "writers to watch." Recently, he has embraced the viral marketing potential of electronic books and has begun to self-publish a selection of his high-quality horror fiction.

His latest novel is Drummer Boy, though he is probably still best known for his Bram Stoker Award–nominated debut, The Red Church (recently reprinted by his own Haunted Computer Books). He also has a free ebook of tips for writers, called Write Good or Die.

This review covers his 2006 novel The Farm, one of his paperback originals, now out of print (and thus, by my own definition, "forgotten") but readily available used. One wonders if his fellow North Carolinians appreciate how he portrays their home region in his novels, but the number of readers who do is still growing, and I am one of them.

Katy Logan and her tween daughter Jett Draper are trying to start over. After divorcing her husband Mark because of his drug addiction, Katy was looking for a more stable type of fellow to help raise her daughter through these trying years. She found Gordon Smith, a theological scholar living on his ancestral farm in the small town of Solom, North Carolina (a town patterned after rural Todd, NC).

Gordon's family has a long history in Solom. His first wife (whom Nicholson has rather cleverly named Rebecca) died mysteriously five years ago, but her spirit still haunts the farm, leaving the scent of lilacs in her wake. And Gordon's great-great-great-grandfather was Harmon Smith, a circuit-riding preacher who was killed by members of his own church and still, 200 years after his death, reappears regularly in town — so regularly, in fact, that the locals have gotten quite used to his presence (though he always takes one of them with him each time he comes through).

If that weren't odd enough, Gordon's goats have also begun acting peculiarly — especially in their newly carnivorous eating habits — and his scarecrow, made to appear as lifelike as possible, doesn't tend to stay where you leave it. Does the stranger in the black hat have anything to do with these odd occurrences, or is he just one more of them?

The Farm is not a "barn-burner." Nicholson does not follow the typical horror style here (lots of extreme scenes with a little down time in between), opting instead for a more thriller-like progression where things build and build to a climactic payoff. Nicholson leads us leisurely into these events, always leaving plenty of room for description, character thoughts, and history. Life in Solom is usually pretty slow, and Nicholson's prose offers a taste of that same feeling.

That is not to say that The Farm isn't damned frightening. Nicholson maintains a strong sense of dread, fear, and foreboding, as each character responds to these new events in different ways. Luckily, there are enough recent arrivals in town for us to also experience the old events through new eyes.

Like Stephen King, Nicholson has a tendency to offer up quite a bit of information about each character as he introduces them before moving on with the story. Whether it is too much is up to the individual, but I find this very appealing — and in some ways comforting — as I get to know each person as an individual before he or she is put in mortal danger. But more viscerally focused readers who like a lot of action may find it frustrating that the first 100 pages or so of The Farm is mostly Nicholson setting the stage for what is to follow.

Nicholson has a wonderful eye (and ear) for the details of rural Appalachia; he writes of its pluses and minuses with the same affection his fellow North Carolinian Sharyn McCrumb gives to her mystery novels. Both authors aspire to write more than just another typical genre entry, opting instead to bring a taste of literature into their usually pulpy arena.

The Farm has a more literary feel than the average horror novel. Nicholson even incorporates a good deal of folklore, from Appalachian to ancient Jewish to modern urban legends. The ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, and the book as a whole could have used a little more tightening, but generally speaking, I enjoyed the languid flow of the story. It reminded me of the slow pace of small-town life — one of the few things, other than the mountains, that I miss about living in the South.


George said...

Although I've seen THE FARM in used book stores, I never picked it up. After reading your wonderful review, I'll have to correct my error and seek out a copy.

Evan Lewis said...

Great review, Craig. Sounds like cool stuff.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the kind words, gents. Nicholson is one of the more underrated horror wordsmiths.

He wrote a guest blog here last month about his switch to e-publishing.

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