Upmorchard by R. Ostermeier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My expectations were high for this little book. The publisher, Broodcomb Press, is making some fantastic limited-edition books centering, it seems, around tropes of (mostly folk) horror set (mostly) in south-western England. This is the second Broodcomb title I've read, after the outstanding The Night of Turns, by Edita Bikker. I have heard great things about Ostermeier's work, and their short-story collection A Trick of the Shadow sits on my shelf waiting . . . looming . . . staring . . .
But for now, my attention is turned fully to Upmorchard. It's a beautiful little book, perfectly sized in both dimensions and content, for my tastes. I'm not sure of the word count, but I'd guess it is in the long novella range, a slice of reading (and writing) I have come to love more and more.
Though I would ultimately characterize this as horror fiction, there is little by way of horror until the stark, terrifying end, which took me by surprise. Yes, there are hints and foreshadowing, but nothing that fully prepared me for the revelation(s) at the end. There are no jump scares here, but Ostermeier keeps much cleverly hidden, only revealing enough to prime the reader a tiny bit for what is to come. And even then, the story retains a great deal of mystery regarding the strange stones and their origin, as well as the motivations and secrets of the characters. Here, Ostermeier takes cues from the great Robert Aickman. If you're looking for a tidy ending where everything is explained, forget about it. You're going to have to do some work thinking about this.
That doesn't mean it's inscrutable. Far from it. The prose style is easy and quick reading, sprinkled with some amazingly clever "tricks," if you will, to keep the reader engaged and paying attention. Take this little bit, for example:
The drop was sheer, and the water below was filled with sharp. There was no need for a related noun. The hole was filled with water and sharp.
Breaking the fourth wall? Not quite. But not quite not breaking it either. I like these kinds of nods to the reader occasionally, but without an accompanying corny wink and smile. Ostermeier gives just enough acknowledgement to the reader's intelligence to involve them, but not so much as to call them out in a crass manner.
What is the story about? I'm not about to give the plot away (which is the primary danger in writing reviews about novellas), but suffice it to say that it is strange, witty, human, and contains supernatural elements. One thing that makes it stand out from other dark novellas I've read lately is the light it sheds on the tyranny of academia. This seems to be a theme throughout, and one I can understand, given my experiences in graduate school and the experiences of friends and acquaintances who work in the academy. Yes, the horror is external to those considerations, but they definitely play a part in driving the plot forward.
It's a proper book-as-artifact in itself, worth the investment. But you'll want to find a copy soon, as Broodcomb is making a name for itself among those who read the literature of the fantastic. Don't miss out!
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