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Christine M. Roy
4.0 out of 5 starsFour Stars
Reviewed in the United States on December 6, 2017
Really enjoying the offerings so far from this author.
3.0 out of 5 starsHalf-baked and slightly pregnant
Reviewed in the United States on August 20, 2012
Steven Sherrill is an all-around talented guy; a five tool player, as they say in baseball. He's a novelist, poet, painter, and he plays the banjo. His first novel was The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, and it was an audacious success, placing the Minotaur from Greek mythology into everyday life in North Carolina. Locktender's is almost as audacious but not as successful. The audacity comes from trying to mix William Faulkner with Stephen King. Sherrill is a fine writer, with a real talent for deftly describing roadside America and the thoughts and feelings of its average citizens. Here's an example from Locktender's:
"Janice sat at the cramped kitchen table and wondered if he had all the pomp and circumstance the military liked to muster up as filler for the void left by doubt and sorrow. Thanks for dying. Here's your twenty-one-gun salute, and a seriously folded flag."
In three short sentences Sherrill neatly sums up the bitterness and meaningless of a life wasted in the war in Iraq. The Faulkner side of things comes through in this passage:
"What happened in the smokehouse was almost more than she could endure. Endure. She had to endure. Despite the unknowing, she felt closer--beaten, tired and hungry and sore to the core of her being--but closer to, within reach of, that nebulous and fleeting sense of understanding something."
It's a bit opaque and elliptical, just like Faulkner, but it sets a mood perfectly. The main character is Janice, whose boyfriend dies in Iraq as the story begins. This event gives Janice a psychic shock that she reacts to by abandoning her life in North Carolina and setting out on the highway with no clear idea of where she's going. Janice, whose nervous breakdown soon begins to border on madness, ends up at a seemingly abandoned house in Pennsylvania located at the end of the portentously named Sabbath Rest Road. The old clapboard house sits by an abandoned canal and has no running water or electricity. Oddly, though, the kitchen is provisioned with preserves of various kinds. Janice's breakdown moves closer to madness as she begins to have dreams about a horrible event in the past which took place when the canal was operational. She then meets Stephen, a sculptor who lives a relatively short distance away. Stephen befriends her, but even his kindness and warmth can't stop Janice's decline. It's at this point that Janice's dreams seem to come to life, and what began as a nervous breakdown may in fact be a haunting. I'll stop here to keep things spoiler-free.
The problem with the novel is that Sherrill doesn't commit fully to the idea of telling a ghost story. He trots out all the tropes of the modern ghost story (is it all in her head or is it real? Is she possessed or haunted?), but he seems to get shy about going the whole Stephen King. I mention King because the supernatural aspect of the plot has certain similarities to King's Bag of Bones, the only King novel I've ever read, as it happens. Locktender's could probably have stood on its own as a psychological study, but once things that go bump in the night are introduced they can't be left underdeveloped; it's a genie that can't be put back in the bottle. When Sherrill does concentrate on making things creepy he's quite effective, but then Stephen gets in the way, and I don't mean King.
The character of Stephen is the shoddy weld that joins the spooky and non-spooky parts of the novel. He's that stock character of romantic fiction: the artist who's hunky, healing, sensitive, cool, just that little bit kooky, and fun to be around. Janice shows up on his doorstep acting strangely and just gets nuttier as the story unfolds. Despite the abundant evidence that this is not a woman to get hooked up with, unless it involves steering her towards the nearest hospital, Stephen continues to help and comfort her, and even romance her. I know people in ghost stories are occasionally supposed to make unwise decisions ("Let's see what's making that screaming sound in the basement."), but Stephen's actions make no sense at all. And their scenes together are further marred by bantering dialogue that sounds like it was generated by a rom-com bot. It could also be argued that Stephen has no real role in the novel except as someone for Janice to bounce her craziness off of.
Early in the novel there's a hint that the madness and violence on display might be a symptom of contemporary (and historical) life in the U.S. This idea isn't developed, which is unfortunate because it might have given the book some resonance. The best modern ghost story I've read is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It's set in a decaying English manor house in 1947, and the upper crust family to whom the house belongs are living in genteel poverty. They're also having poltergeist problems. On one level the story is about whether the male protagonist is the source of the ghostly problems. On a whole other level the novel is about the sweeping cultural and political changes taking place in Britain thanks to the Labour Party. The occupants of the manor are seeing their wealth greatly diminished, their social status eroded, and their land is being sold for council housing. For the aristos, it would seem that Britain's zeitgeist has manifested into a poltergeist. The Locktender's House is missing this extra layer of meaning to make it more than just a well-crafted piece of Southern Gothic spookiness.
It's always a pleasure to read Sherrill's prose, but his ability as a storyteller isn't up to snuff here. It feels like he wasn't entirely sure which direction to take his novel in and he's ended up with something that's slightly pregnant.
Read more of my reviews at JettisonCocoon dot com.
I have many of the same questions as other reviewers, with less forgiveness for the lack of answers. This book includes a completely un-likeable main character, an unlikely relationship with a perhaps-love interest who seems reasonably intelligent but whose interest in the main character appears purely forced by the writer (the real Stephen, I suspect, might notice that this woman is nuts and want nothing to do with her), a trite but fashionable MacGuffin to get it started, no answers at the end, and careless writing and editing throughout: the house has no locks on the doors - then suddenly there is a latch; the dog is male, no, female, no, male; the toll-taker gave her a bruise or a cut or a bite - the writer can't decide. The kennel comes out of nowhere and seems to serve only to get the main character onto the internet; and the reader wades through a large number of overheated, incoherent visions to leave us even more puzzled than when we started. Setting up a multi-part puzzle for your readers in perfectly acceptable; not solving that puzzle is unforgivable. Letting the main character race around claiming to have solved it is not sufficient - you have to REALLY solve it.
Two stars rather than one for the cleverness of the basic idea and the occasional excellence of some bits of writing; no more than two for the severely flawed execution of that idea, the sloppiness of the rest of the writing, and the lack of closure.
I am shocked by the lack of reviews for this book. I picked this up from a library book sale and read it several years ago and still get a creepily delicious memory of the otherworldly sense that pervades this novel, everytime I see it on my shelf. Few books stick with me years later, and I think this author deserves major kudos for the truly eerie emotions his writing evokes.
I just finished reading Julie Meyerson's A Stopped Heart, and it had a similar feeling but I feel Mr. Sherrill does an even better job with building chilling ambience.