In the heart of the Great Depression, Frank Nichols’ aunt leaves him her Georgia mansion in her will. She begs Nichols to just sell it, telling him she’s convinced that only terrible things lie in store for him there. Of course, he moves in anyway, making just the first in a long series of terrible decisions that send the characters in Those Across The River on the path to destruction.
Nichols threw away his career as a history professor by having an affair with a colleague’s beautiful young wife, and he’s hoping for a fresh start in Whitbrow. The small town is located just across the river from the dramatically named Megiddo Woods, and the remains of a plantation belonging to Nichols’ grandfather, who was notorious for torturing his slaves until they rose up and murdered him.
It’s clear from the beginning of Christopher Buehlman’s debut novel that things won’t go well for Nichols. What transpires is a horror story that manages just the right balance between building dread and suspense and delivering action. Buehlman spends a lot of time introducing the residents of Whitbrow, sharing their strengths, flaws, and charms in order to make the drama that follows all the more potent. The early chapters also offer some particularly witty dialogue, like a taxidermist explaining that he gains satisfaction from feeling like he’s beaten God: “As though the Almighty said, Let thus and such critter be dead, and I said, ‘Fuck you, he can still play the banjo.’” Buehlman leisurely paints a portrait of mellow, almost idyllic days of checkers at the general store and nights dancing at the town social to show how poorly the town is equipped for violence and tragedy.
The characters in Those Across The River tend to make the sort of decisions that cause people watching horror movies to yell at the screen. The town has a longstanding tradition of sending two pigs into the woods as a ritual sacrifice every full moon. Times are hard, though, and the town votes to end the practice, though one resident points out that something out there must be eating the pigs, because they’re never seen again. When “those across the river” wreak destruction in town, looking for their tribute, Whitbrow’s people never even consider just going back to the way things were. Instead, they march into the woods to launch an offensive on unknown foes on their home turf.
Aside from infuriating character decisions and Buehlman spending way too much time describing Nichols’ sex life, Those Across The River is an impressive debut. The book’s final pages are especially strong, offering an excellent, satisfying end to the story, yet making it easy for readers to want more.