Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman
Read by Mark Bramhall
Length: 9 Hrs. 5 Min
Quick Thoughts: A well written old school horror tale that, while quite chilling, never really achieves a feeling of terror. The narration by Mark Bramhall adds to the chills with his unique authentic reading.
I’m a sucker for tales taking place in small southern Depression era towns. I don’t know exactly why, but I always find the simple people of small town America fixed against a background of racial tension, economic instability and caught between two wars to be intriguing. In some ways, I always find this time period to be a bit of a turning point in American thought. I’m not much of a historian, but the depression era seemed to be the last true period of American isolationism, and a time where people’s secrets could stay secret and a small town’s sins were not grist for the masses. I find this a great setting for tales. Recent examples being Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms, and RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels. I think horror and suspense novels do especially well set in this period. Modern murder mysteries have taken on an almost clinical feel. It’s become about forensics, and profiling, yet, back in the days before murder was solved by science, murder was about terror. An unexplained dead body wasn’t entertainment for the prime time slots, but a shock to security of your simple life. Add to that horrific elements, or multiple incidents, and towns became powder kegs leading to vigilante justice. Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman is a depression era horror tale taking place in a small Georgia town called Whitbrow. Frank Nichols, a disgraced history professor, moves to this small town with his wife, after inheriting a house from his estranged aunt. Despite her warnings to just sell the house and not to move to Whitbrow, Frank decided that the change will be good. Yet, as Frank, and his wife begin to encounter and influence the people of Whitbrow, those across the river do not like the changes, and plan on letting the town know. Word of advice, if your strange Aunt leaves a dying warning to stay away from a small town, I suggest you listen.
Unlike many modern day horror tales, which goes for scares by the quantity, Those Across the River subtly builds the tension, employing a feeling of impending doom as the vehicle of suspense. There is almost a Lovecraftian feel to the early parts of the novel. Things seem normal enough. A young couple trying to restart their life, a small town with its mix of odd rituals and interesting townsfolk, yet, underneath the air of normality, you can feel that something is just a bit off. Buehlman does a good job creating a sort of parallel between Frank and the town of Whitbrow. While Frank seems like your typical academic, researching a book, underneath he suffers from Post Traumatic shock, with images of his time in France during the Great War constantly coloring his perspectives. As the secrets of the town begin to surface, the images that haunt Frank begin to escape from his dreams into his waking consciousness. With Frank, and the town, you feel the author moving you towards some big moment, some huge reveal to the true nature of those across the river. As well as the author set’s up this moment, you couldn’t help but feel a bit let down when it finally came. I personally never moved from a sense of unease to truly scared while listening to the novel. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel or appreciate what the author accomplished. The novel truly had a disquieting feel, and maybe the author set up its finale too well. Maybe, I just expected too much. Fans of old school horror will truly appreciate this novel, which is quite chilling, but never reaches a level of pure terror.
I have really grown to enjoy listening to Mark Brahmall’s narration. With the right material, Bramhall brings an added element that many narrators just can’t. Bramhall voice is just real, full of flaws and humanity. With a book like Those Across the River, he is a perfect fit. Frank Nichols should not have a silky smooth voice. He shouldn’t sound like a voice over artist bringing his perfect inflections to the reading of ad copy. He needs to sound like the flawed person he is. Bramhall brings added depth to the characters, transforming what could come off as stereotypical Southern hicks, into real people. The authenticity of the reading only helps the simmering level of tension that encompasses this novel. Those Across the River is a novel that I will happily recommend to those looking for a chilling reading experience, but I truly believe the audiobook version may be the best way to experience this tale.
Note: Special thanks to the people of Penguin Audio for proving me with a review copy of this title.