Wild Fell begins in the small town of Alvina, Ontario, in 1960, when Sean Schwartz asks his high school sweetheart, Brenda Egan, if she believes in ghosts. Whether he’s trying to scare her into cuddling closer, looking for some excitement to end the summer before school begins again, or is entirely sincere in his question, his question is a prelude to asking Brenda if she’ll cross a mile of Devil’s Lake to Blackmore Island to explore the remains of a mansion called Wild Fell. It takes some persuading, but Brenda reluctantly agrees, only to change her mind when they’re halfway there, suddenly frightened. Sean is disappointed, maybe angry, but the evening is saved by an illicit bottle of wine and a bonfire. But Wild Fell isn’t done with them, and the curtain of the prologue falls as a legend begins.
Michael Rowe sets his hook firmly with this prologue, but then he lets the line out for a nice long run. Jameson Browning — Jamie — tells us the story in the first person, starting, “I want to teach you about fear.” That sentence recedes from the reader’s mind as Jamie relates the story of his childhood in Alvina with a warm, loving father and a cold, unhappy mother. He is a reclusive child with only one real friend, Hank. Hank is really named Lucinda, but she doesn’t much want to be a girl, as she’s recently demonstrated by cutting off her hair. Hank is better at being a boy than Jamie is, really, and their friendship is a true one that involves no secrets.
Well, except for one: Jamie never tells Hank about Amanda, the girl who lives in his mirror. Amanda has Jamie’s face and speaks in his voice, but she’s completely real. She started as an imaginary playmate of Jamie’s own gender, someone to share victories and grievances with. But when eight-year-old Jamie complains to his mirror that his bike has been stolen by an older child, the presence in the mirror becomes a separate person, not an echo. She still uses his throat, his voice, but the words she speaks are not his, and the reflection in the mirror is not of his body or his room. She asks what he wants to happen to the boy who stole his bike, and Jamie says he wants the kid to just shut up and give him his bike back. Amanda promises that this will happen. And it does. Oh, boy, does it ever.
We don’t find out who Amanda is for a long time, not for the rest of Jamie’s childhood, not during his young adulthood in Toronto, not until much later when he returns to Alvina. In the meantime, though, we come to enjoy Jamie’s company. We see him through college and into marriage and a teaching career; being cared for and then caring for his father; and, ultimately, making a purchase in Alvina that will decide his fate. Always, lurking in the background, whether he acknowledges her or not, Amanda haunts his steps. By the time we find out who she was, and what she wants with Jamie, it feels like she’s meddling with a good friend.
Rowe has meticulously plotted this ghost story, so that nothing feels extraneous and every word seems carefully chosen. There is a sexual ambiguity to Jamie that colors the story, but is never overt, a suggestion; just as the violence is muted, always offstage and related to Jamie afterwards. The horror in this story isn’t graphic, but it is very much present.
Rowe writes beautifully, with words that draw pictures and bring memories to life. Here, for example, is a passage describing Alvina, and other small summer resort towns, from the prologue:
Legends begin in small northern towns on the edge of places other people only drive through on their way to somewhere else, in station wagons and vans full of summer gear: Muskoka chairs in bright summer colours, coolers full of beer, canvas bags bursting with swimsuits and shorts and t-shirts, and dogs who slumber on blankets in the back seat and are bored by the entire process of long car trips.
Towns pass by that are the sum of their parts, and their parts are bridges, barns, fields, and roadside stands where home-baked pies or fresh ice cream are sole in the summer, and pumpkins, sweet corn, and Indian corn in the autumn. These towns are for gas stations that are distance markers for exhausted parents, where the kids can have one final bathroom break before the last stretch of highway leading to driveways that in turn lead to front doors and lake views….
The towns they pass might as well be shell facades, their residents merely extras in a movie called Our Drive Up North to the Cottage, a movie with annual sequels whose totality makes up a lifetime of holiday memories.
When I was a child, we had a place we visited during the summer that was just like that, though a country away. And when I was a child, the ends of long summer evenings, those long, slow twilights during which the shadows got longer and longer, and anything could be hiding behind the bridal veil or under the willow fronds, were eerie and frightening. That feeling, too, is what Rowe has captured in this novel, a lingering, cold dread.
Wild Fell is one of the best books of 2013. And Rowe is a talent to watch.