As the nights lengthen and Halloween approaches, some of us like to curl up by the fireside with a spooky book. Vermont authors are no slouches when it comes to evoking ghosties and ghoulies — or the more existential terrors that stalk us "in the night, in the dark," as Bennington's own Shirley Jackson put it in The Haunting of Hill House.
For the younger set, this fall brings Small Spaces, the first middle-grade novel from Katherine Arden, Addison County author of the best-selling Winternight fantasy novels. Set in a small Vermont town, it's sure to creep out anyone who finds the sight of a scarecrow leaning askance in a misty field unsettling.
Sixth-grade math whiz Olivia recently lost her mom to an accident, and her patience is at a low ebb. When she sees bullies targeting a new classmate, she throws a rock; when she encounters a strange, muttering woman about to toss a book in the river, she makes off with the old volume herself.
The stolen book introduces Olivia to the spine-tingling story of a Faustian bargain and a curse attached to a family farm, but little does she know the same curse is about to descend on her. The next day, on the way back from an innocuous farm visit, Olivia's class finds itself transported to a bleak otherworld haunted by grotesque living scarecrows.
"[B]est get moving," the bus driver warns. "At nightfall they'll come for the rest of you." Armed with the advice to hide in "small spaces," Olivia and two classmates go on the run. Their only hope of escape is to break the curse; in the process, the grieving Olivia will find a path forward.
While it won't terrify adult horror fans, Arden's novel is sure to creep out younger ones as she deftly balances the scares with the heartfelt feels. Soaked in Vermont's autumnal atmosphere, Small Spaces is the perfect read for any kid who comes home from the corn maze thoroughly unnerved by the dry rustle of wind through the stalks — and then asks for a scary story.
Horror is just one of several genres evoked by The End of All Our Exploring: Stories, the first story collection from Norwich University English professor F. Brett Cox. Some of his absorbing tales previously appeared in genre publications, others in more mainstream journals such as the North Carolina Literary Review. Many of them feature richly detailed historical settings, and most occupy the liminal territory often called "speculative fiction."
Take the opening story, "Legacy," which starts as the quaint chronicle of an early 20th-century courtship, only to morph into the story of a horrifying supernatural curse. Or "It Came Out of the Sky," a loving reminiscence of rural adolescence in the 1970s capped by what may or may not be a genuine UFO encounter.
In five of these stories, based on or inspired by historical events in South Carolina (the author is a North Carolina native), Cox sticks to the mundane and finds hints of the disturbingly surreal there. In this rural corner of the pre-civil rights South, some brutal crimes are punished with haphazard ferocity, while the perpetrators of others go scot-free.
In several other of the 27 tales, Cox delves into a fascinating piece of history and adds a speculative twist. In "The Serpent and the Hatchet Gang," for instance, a band of early Massachusetts temperance crusaders lays waste to the town's liquor stores. The narrative follows one of these women, with empathy and eloquence, to a conclusion that bends the space-time continuum.
Several of these stories adopt a female perspective on events we may know better from a male one, self-consciously exploring counter-narratives. "Mary of the New Dispensation," for instance, details 19th-century minister John Murray Spear's bizarre spiritualist-mechanist experiments from the point of view of the woman whom he selected to "give birth to" a mechanical messiah. "Madeline's Version" retells Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" from the wraith-like sister's angle.
Whether investigating a dusty corner of weird Americana or telling a contemporary tale reminiscent of "The Twilight Zone," Cox artfully adapts his style to the subject. This motley yet not ungainly collection offers the consistent pleasure of surprise; a few stories even read like dramatic monologues or prose poems stitched together with song lyrics.
Cox takes his title from a famous passage in T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding": "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." While his characters explore many strange and forbidden realms, he never ceases to remind us that the human mind is the strangest one of all.