In 1935, Frank Nichols, a disgraced, unemployable academic receives a letter from a distant relative, informing him of an unexpected inheritance, a manor house in a small Georgia town. Ignoring the letter's eccentric suggestion that he must sell the house and avoid the town, he and Eudora, the woman with whom he had the affair that ended his career, move to Whitbrow, where he hopes to write a history of the distant relative who owned the old family plantation on the other side of the river from town. After his death in a violent slave uprising at the end of the Civil War, the plantation and surrounding lands were abandoned, and the land across the river became a vast, empty woodland. But according to long-standing tradition, the people of Whitbrow chase two pigs across the river every month, in what they claim is simply a sign of thanks to God. But when the hard times of the Depression cause the Chase to be abandoned, a horrific series of events unfolds, suggesting that the tradition may have other sources, and that the forest across the river is not as empty as it might seem.
As its plot summary suggests, this first novel by poet and playwright Christopher Buehlman is a traditional tale of rural horror, replete with local color, ominous hints, and a slowly-building atmosphere before the dark forces at work are fully revealed. The first dozen chapters lay out the details of milieu (the town's hardscrabble existence and strong sense of community), character (Frank's lingering trauma from his time as a soldier in WWI France, which manifests in a series of grim nightmares), and backstory (the fall of the plantation, local cautionary tales about some ghostly presence on the other side of the river). Buehlman's clean prose encourages page-turning and makes this material very readable, although the evocation of place is never very strong, and his subdued approach to the casual racism and sexism of the times is admirable. Rather than score cheap moral points by treating his early 20th-century southerners as crude, bigoted rednecks, he describes the cruelties and small kindnesses of which they're capable in an even tone. When Eudora, who has taken a job as the local school-teacher, encourages the father of a female student to allow the girl to pursue her education, he is a gruff man, uncertain about the value of book-learning, but no ogre. What seems likely to be a broad fable of oppression and revenge becomes more complex and melancholy.
The characters may not be stereotypes, but, with the exception of Frank, they don't achieve quite the depth that might be hoped for given the length of the novel's stage-setting. They come closer to the genial types of a horror film, made pleasant enough in act one so that we feel a little twinge, but not too much of one, when the monster gets them. (Eudora in particular is so beautiful, so lovable, so under-developed that some dark fate seems inevitable.) However, the twinge readers are apt to feel once the antagonists of Those Across the River finally appear is more large than small. The subject of this second half of the novel is nothing less than the dissolution of a town, and while his individual characters may be somewhat lacking, Buehlman is quite deft at portraying the collapse of a community in suspicion and terror. The cruelty of which "those across the river" is capable is, after the gentle suggestiveness of the novel's opening, likewise genuinely unsettling.
The novel's climax, in which various elements that might have seemed extraneous return in a clever and satisfying manner, strikes an appropriate note of tragedy and moral ambiguity for a novel that, despite some explicitly violent and psychologically disturbing passages, is more quietly pessimistic and literary than out-and-out shocking. Buehlman is playing with familiar elements here, but uses them adeptly enough to please readers comfortable with traditional horror. Reminiscent of John Farris' All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, Those Across the River is a compulsively readable novel of guilt, fear, and the lingering consequences of man's inhumanity to man.