In Hidden Things, by Doyce Testerman, Calliope Jenkins gets a strange phone call, then an even stranger phone message from her ex-boyfriend (now partner) in a private detective firm. The odd part in the phone call is his closing warning: “Watch out for the hidden things.” The even weirder part about the later message is that it comes several hours after his corpse was found. Soon after, Calliope finds herself on the road to Iowa where her partner Joshua was killed, which also happens to be the one place she swore she’d never return to after some family issues years ago. She is accompanied on her road trip by a “demon clown” who has for some reason assigned himself as her “guide” on whatever quest she’s become mixed up in. Tracking her is a federal agent who is more than he seems, while ahead of her lies a host of mythical (allegedly) creatures, dangerous adventures, side trips into the Hidden Area, and perhaps even worse, the family she left long ago. Not to mention the truth of what happened to Joshua.
If I had to label Hidden Things, I’d call it contemporary noir fantasy that feels a bit like an early, dark Neil Gaiman, the way the world of myth is overlaid with the modern. It also has some similarity to magical realism, in that the fantasy element is both a precipitating event and a constant backdrop but in many ways is not the focus of the story. It’d be very easy to remove all the fantasy references and be left with a short novella or long short story that reads like a contemporary fiction piece focusing on Calliope dealing with the death of an ex-boyfriend and her own coming to terms with her life. I don’t think Testerman quite nailed this; Hidden Things isn’t all there for me. But it’s an almost-there book and I enjoyed it quite a bit, both for the story itself and for the freshness of the fantasy/contemporary fiction mix.
The fantasy premise of the novel is that many of those creatures from fairy tales and myths that supposedly don’t exist really do, but have been dwindling in numbers and are now forced to hide as best they can, some by retreating to little-visited geographic areas, others by blending in somehow (her clown guide Vikous is one such example) through changing their appearance and also by taking advantage of how people tend to see what they expect to see. Entire swaths of land are hidden in such fashion, especially in the Midwest.
I really liked this premise even though I’ve seen it before and I thought it was mostly well handled throughout, especially in some great moments in the latter part of the book. But I wouldn’t have minded seeing it more fully. Vikous is often a reluctant explainer and I wish he’d been a little less so, or that we’d have had more experiences with the hidden ones.
Calliope is an interesting character choice. In some ways she can be quite unlikable, and I would rather we’d had fewer lines where she refers to her willingness to “kick ass,” as they felt a bit cheesy. But her reaction to Josh’s death is richly complex: he was the love of her life to this point, he’s married and his wife has some understandable issues with Calliope’s continued constant presence in his life, and Calliope is currently living with someone else who seems like a pretty good guy. Her attempt to find out what happened to Josh also involves learning what happened between them to break them up and, maybe, changing in response to what she learns about herself. In the latter part of the book, she becomes even more complex as we broaden out from her past with Josh into exploring her past with her family. Again, here I would have liked Testerman to slow down a bit and give us a bit more; it’s not quite fully there, but almost.
Vikous, as our representative “other” is quite the cipher early on but, as we learn more about him, he grows on the reader. So much so that opening him up even more would have been a good choice. The other “others” we see are equally intriguing. Some are given just the right amount of page time (“The Fat Man” for instance) and one or two others I wish we had seen more of — one because it was just an awesome (in the literal sense) character and the other because he played such a major role that I wanted him to be more than just a plot driver.
The storyline sets up a nice mystery with Josh’s phone call and message, then adds tension with the addition of Josh’s wife and her somewhat bitter feelings about Calliope, the federal agent who clearly is not on Calliope’s side, and then Vikous, about whom we’re not quite sure what to think at first. It then becomes more episodic as Vikous and Calliope hit the road and here the book becomes a bit more mixed, with some of the segments stronger than others. Finally, they arrive in Iowa and the book moves to a more domestic sort of phase. Some readers may find this off-putting, but I didn’t mind the shift, though I did wish its presentation felt a bit more original.
The structure is a definite strong point of the novel. The straight chronological narrative of Calliope’s trip to Iowa is broken up by various interruptions: flashbacks to her past with Josh, other moments from her past, dream communications/visions, and a few others that I don’t want to name for fear of spoiling the story. I’m a fan of the non-linear novel, especially when done well, and I thought the shifts were handled smoothly and enhanced the novel’s emotional and narrative impact.
The prose moves you smoothly along. The noir-ish dialogue mostly is well done — snappy, dry wit, built in beats you can almost hear. There’s a nice shift in tone and style in many of the interruptive scenes that works well. The descriptive sections are probably the weakest aspect linguistically, but they do what they need to.
Hidden Things isn’t quite fully realized in terms of its potential but, though I could see ways it might have been improved, none of that prevented me from enjoying the book from the beginning all the way through to the end. I read Hidden Things in two sittings, which is always a good sign of how much I enjoyed it. Recommended.