Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Mark of the Shadow Grove, by Ross Smeltzer

Fantasy Works Publishing, 2016
236 pp


With huge apologies to the author, this is one book I should have read a long while ago, and just never got around to.  As the saying goes though, no time like the present, so I carved out late-night time for this one this week.  The book consists of three interconnected and atmospheric stories that in each case take the characters and the reader into the thick woods near Kinderhook, "a retiring town in New York's drowsy upper reaches," which was founded in 1609 under the Dutch.  The stories range in date from 1821 on into the early 1920s.

The "about the author" section reveals that Mr. Smeltzer's imagination was
 "apparently corrupted in adolescence by Hawthorne, Bierce, Machen, Lovecraft and other misanthropes, weirdos and purveyors of high strangeness"
and his influences definitely come through in this book.

The Schermerhorn clan has since the oldest times "mediated" the "liminal space" between "invisible hidden things" and the earthly realm, and in 1821, Katrina Schermerhorn continues the family tradition.  Years earlier, when she was young, she was given the name "arendiwanen," translated by some as "witch," but really meaning "one who possesses spirit power." The women of this clan are extremely powerful, and are also very gifted in terms of understanding the secrets of nature; they are also healers.  Katrina, for example, has a reputation among the locals  for being "dangerous" -- she
"knows when it may rain and when a body may die. She can make any garden grow, stimulate seeds in the deadest of soil."
 She is also skilled in forbidden knowledge, and in the first story, "The Witch of Kinderhook," it is this knowledge that drives a would-be necromancer named Carver to find her for his own bizarre work. The other two stories continue the story of the powerful Schermerhorn women descended from Katrina; in the next one, "Lord of All High and Hidden Places,"  a certain Professor Hildersham finds an assistant in the form of Alice Schermerhorn, a student who finds her way into one of his courses. His research focuses on the Horned God, who is a major fertility deity.  Alice's task is to locate any old tomes that might have bearing on his research; he, much like Carver before him, has no idea what he's getting into. The third story, "The Role of Old Blood"  features newspaper reporter Jim Scordato, who is currently seeking the whereabouts of a missing wealthy businessman whose last known contact is with an artist we know only as  Ms. Schiaparelli.  When he's not out on a story, the reporter is plagued with dark dreams that he knows ultimately reveal his own destruction.

All three stories are really quite engaging, focusing on the strengths of the women in this clan. The women, in fact, are the strongest characters portrayed here; their power derives from their patroness deity, leading them to grasp onto life that comes out of death and destruction. In all three tales, the belief in reason and science help guide the men to their fate; normally reason and science are good things in  the "realm in which you and I live," but have absolutely no place in a realm of gods and deities, "the cosmos of invisible, hidden things," which the Schermerhorn women seem to understand very well.  I highlight the word seem because of the ending, which I'll leave for other readers to ponder.

Two more things and we're done -- first, there is a lot of obvious Lovecraft influence here (as just two examples, old gods, the skin-covered old tomes and even a mention of  The Necronomicon), but to the author's credit, this is not a pastiche nor is this story explicitly derivative.  The author's definitely put his own spin on things here and he does it well.   I can easily see Machen in here too, which is a good thing. Second, I must confess that I inwardly cringed when I saw the word "ecosystem" being used in the 1820s setting; a bit of research revealed that the term wasn't coined until 1935.  Inner cringe. That seemed to me to be just sloppy.

Actually, this book would also make a fine summer read (it's June tomorrow, and summer reads are on my brain) -- not too heavy, not too dark, but just enough creep factor to keep anyone reading.  It's also very obvious that Mr. Smeltzer can write -- from the outset, it's clear to me that he's employed a literary tone  in this novel that's refreshing to see these days, especially in this genre.  Another fine small press read and I thank the author for bringing it to my attention. It's also fun.

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