Growing up, I remember darkness. All right, that’s a lie; I actually had a pretty awesome childhood, with a few truly bad parts before high school. But having read two novels back-to-back recently in which their respective narrators recall coming of age through eerie and mysterious times, I sure feel like I’ve just emerged from a dark past. These novels were Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms and John Mantooth’s The Year of the Storm.
In The Bottoms, Harry Crane is recalling his childhood in Depression-era Texas. Now a retired old man, he views the twilight of his life with bitter acceptance and has come to value his youth with a humble nostalgia—even as he describes the twisted events of his adolescence in the 1930’s Texas countryside. Women were being gruesomely murdered, and he and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) caught glimpses of an eerie entity known as the Goat Man in the woods nearby.
In The Year of the Storm, Danny recalls being fourteen when a major storm hit rural Alabama, during which his mother and autistic sister vanished. Almost a year later, a strange man named Walter Pike shows up, who claims to know where they’ve gone. The narrative is split with Walter as he recalls his teen encounters and a strange, bullied boy named Seth Sykes and the mysterious secrets that Seth harbored.
Both novels nicely explore the idea of discovering magic in the mundane, as well as the presence of magic as opposed to the mundane—and how sometimes, it really doesn’t matter one way or another of just what was “really” going on. What matters is that these character did go through their respective adventures and what they took from it all—a sense of finding themselves in the midst of the wild (and at times terrifying) events.
There was so much more than creeping menace and bewildering mystery that got to me in these novels. Lansdale and Mantooth nicely captured the heartbreaking sense of the relative if fragile innocence of childhood and how abruptly and unfairly it can be wrested away by forces and events beyond one’s control. And I’m not just talking about the narrator’s own journeys—I’m talking about nine-year-old Tom having to witness everything from racism and abuse to grisly murder, and teenaged Seth Sykes getting vilified by the ugliness of homophobia and bullying. There is a lot of darkness to be found in these tales, and not nearly all of it stems from the supernatural.
Comparisons of these books are often made to other novels and stories, from Stephen King’s novella The Body (and its 1986 film adaptation, Stand By Me) and Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and on up through recent titles such as Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter—but to me, that’s part of the charm of tales such as these. Everybody starts out somewhere; everybody has an innocent adolescence that hardens and thickens into maturity. Many an author (and director, and musician, and other artist) has to capture that sense of coming into her or his own. It’s a time-honored tradition for a person to recall darkness in her or his youth, and in tales such as these, it can be argued that that darkness can be the catalyst to one’s maturity.