By and by I slept.
And, alas, I dreamed.
Not of the trench fight; that was the worst.
And not of Metzger's death, which was nearly as bad.
But I did dream of the trench.
Something about a gas attack, and I couldn't find my mask. But there was a dead guy half in the mud gripping his mask in his hands, I couldn't get it loose. I was holding my breath and jerking at it, and pulling at his fingers, but they were like iron, even though his head was lolling. He was being stubborn.
I was going to die. I woke up gasping.
But I hadn't yelled; Dora was still sleeping.
It was dark, but the roosters were going at it.
How did I end up in Georgia?
I stuffed the pillow over my eyes and ears and just lay there for a long time, still mad at the dead guy who wouldn't let me have his mask. (Ch. 3)
Christopher Buehlman's debut novel (although not new to writing; he is a published playwright and poet), Those Across the River, is perhaps the closest to a traditional horror novel of the five finalists for this year's World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Set in a fictional rural Georgia small town in 1935, Those Across the River attempts to portray the legacies of inhumane treatment of the enslaved by a particularly cruel master while also decking this tale with all of the trappings of werewolf lore. Of the five, it is perhaps the most frustrating to consider, as there is much that it does right, only to be undone ultimately (and ironically) by the relative lack of focus on the "little things."
Buehlman does an excellent job in establishing his main (although not exclusive) PoV character, Frank Nichols, a veteran of World War I who suffers nightmare from his time in the trenches during the last months of the war. Frank and his new wife, Dora, have moved from Chicago to his ancestral home in rural Georgia. There, the townsfolk have been under the grip of a mysterious ritual, in which two pigs are sent "across the river" at the beginning of each full moon. This monthly event, which had been taking place since the 19th century, puzzles Frank, who is then revealed to be the descendent of a local plantation owner who was infamous for his cruelty to his slaves. Foe one of those reasons that make sense in horror tales and not necessarily in real life, the townspeople decide to end the monthly sacrifices, after which a series of brutal attacks and disappearances begin to occur.
The premise is rather Horror 101, yet Buehlman's prose often makes it feel intriguing. Like those movie goers who scream at the screen, "Don't open that door!," the events follow logical (sometimes clichéd) patterns that allow the reader to anticipate what will transpire next. This is double-edged, however. While Buehlman's plot permits readers to anticipate the plot and at times to feel a heightened sense of awareness as to what is occurring beyond what Frank (and another PoV) narrates, over the course of the novel, it has the deleterious effect of reducing the setting and circumstances to yet another horror tale, one devoid of true vitality.
Buehlman's lack of attention to establish the secondary characters (even Frank's wife, Dora, who should be more fleshed out, instead ends up being more of a silhouette of a character rather than a fully-realized, dynamic one) and setting strips the novel of palpable atmosphere. While the Antebellum era precursors for the events could have led to a more meaningful discussion of the sense of "otherness" (which Buehlman at times does appear to strive to do), his lack of detail makes this potentially-intriguing element feel like raw dough that should have been baked thoroughly before presented to the audience. Time and time again, the character dialogues, their interactions with each other, and the presumed purpose behind the horrors feels incomplete and sketchy.
This is a shame, as Those Across the River could have been more than just a competently-told horror story. Too often, there was this sense that Buehlman had some good ideas for making the horror work on multiple levels, only to be foiled by his lack of character and setting development. It is not a total failure, as he does a good job in developing the final scenes, but it just feels as though it lacks a true "heart" to it; it is a good paint-by-numbers tale, but even the best paint-by-numbers works lack that sense of originality or creativity that the best works possess. It is not a "bad" novel, just merely a mediocre one that could have been very good. Those, perhaps, are the most damning novels of all. Those Across the River was the weakest of the five World Fantasy Award novel finalists that I read.