- Those Across the River
- Ace, 368 pp.
“Lots Livin That Look Dead, and Lots Dead That Look Livin”: Christopher Buehlman’s Genre-Bending Southern Horror
Christopher Buehlman opens his first novel, Those Across the River, with the main character fondly contemplating his death: “I wanted to lie down with the dead. I wanted to be numb and blind and without memory. But that’s not what happened.” Instead, he confides, “I kept my memory. Especially the parts I didn’t want.” The reasons for Frank Nichols’ desire for oblivion, for the calm dark, empty recesses of a memory-less void, unwind throughout the novel as the reader gets to know him. A WWI veteran and academic historian (perhaps ironically), Frankie repeatedly confesses how much he wants simply not to know. What he already knows—the horrors of trench warfare, his fiancé-cum-wife’s spotty record on fidelity, his family’s bloody history—he wishes he didn’t. Buehlman poetically negotiates this character’s ambivalent relationship with love, history, and truth, as he struggles both to uncover a mystery and to bury it deep. Like other works in the tradition of American gothic fiction, of which Buehlman’s novel is a clear inheritor, the characters in Those Across the River are bound to flee the ugliness and violence of their history, and that history is bound to catch up with them.
Buehlman’s lyrical prose vividly captures a landscape made familiar by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. The reader is introduced to the town of Whitbrow, Georgia, in the year 1935, along with Frankie and Dora. The young couple has just relocated to the small Southern town after some personal drama and related financial problems oblige them to move into a house Frankie inherited from a deceased relative. Frankie settles in to write a book about his great-grandfather, Lucien Savoyard, whose vicious cruelty to his slaves made him the subject of local legend. On his plantation across the river from Whitbrow, Savoyard had been widely known as a vicious and cruel slave owner. When he refused to free his slaves at the Civil War’s conclusion, the newly freed slaves killed him. The plantation fell into ruin and the woods around the place quickly became the subject of superstitious whisperings and practices among the people in Whitbrow. The local schoolchildren believe the devil, or some version of him in the murderous ghost of Savoyard himself, haunts the woods across the river.
To appease this devil, the townspeople adopted a monthly ritual of driving pigs into those purportedly haunted woods. When Frankie and Dora arrive, hard economic times faced by the residents of Whitbrow have prompted a public debate about whether to continue the practice. After Frankie and Dora, fresh from the universities of Chicago, weigh in on the debate, the townspeople elect to cease the tradition. In doing so, they cast their lot with modernity and with the power of progress to overcome the horrors of history and the burdens of tradition. Unfortunately for the town, the past, like the devil, won’t be denied or ignored. In Buehlman’s world, the trauma of history and of national—and familial—shame manifests with a shocking combination of subtlety and violence. The revealed mystery of “those across the river,” how they came to be and what they want, is a delightfully genre-bending juxtaposition of supernatural horror and gothic drama. Buehlman blends these surprising elements in a novel that is simultaneously poetically spare and defiantly eclectic.
Just as the novel itself is arguably a metaphor for the way a nation copes (unsuccessfully) with its bad historical conscience, Buehlman poses Frankie’s ambivalent relationship with Dora and his family history as a sort of microcosm of the town’s relationship to race and history. Frankie’s ability to rationalize bias and hate are rivaled only by his capacity for self-deception. Frankie’s sense of horror, with regard to the implicit riddle of Dora and to the more clearly menacing violence offered by “those across the river,” hinges on his ability simultaneously to know and not to know. Like the other residents of Whitbrow, so long as the ritual of forgetting and purging a dangerous historical memory is performed on a regular basis, Frankie is able to go about his business and even sometimes to sleep at night. But this fragile and temporary truce is threatened when a minor change in course, or the simple act of crossing a shallow river, rejects any faith in modernity, in progress, or in the cold, clear light of reason.
Frankie’s occasionally unwitting exploration of his ancestral home takes him deeper into the mysteries of war, the evil men do, and his own ruthlessness than he ever expected. Over the course of the novel, Frankie not only learns the true story of his family and the role they played in the community of Whitbrow, but also lives out that history in a grotesque pantomime. In Those Across the River, the historically repressed returns to engrave itself on the very bodies of the characters. Indeed, Buehlman’s narrative leads the reader through layers of history, into the speculative, and back out again. In contemplating the horrors of history and the pain of human existence, Frankie sagely muses that life can always get worse: “Well, if God is up there, He’s a real card. He must split His Holy paunch laughing when one of us speaks in such superlatives. Because the bottom can always, and I mean always, be lowered.”