Ginger Nuts of Horror
By George Illet Anderson
Belly of the Beast
One of the best things about reviewing is when you come across those books that weave their reading magic on you, lulling you into this weird state of oblivion. Where you find yourself sitting down to have a taste of what’s on offer only to find yourself roused from your insatiable appetite for more by the fading light. Sam Gafford’s debut novel from Dark Regions Press, “The House of Nodens” definitely falls into this category.
I’d previously bought Gafford’s collection from Hippocampus Press, “The Dreamer in Fire and Other Tales” and found myself immersed in these beautifully crafted worlds full of imagination and assured writing. So when this popped up in my recommendations and I glanced at that brooding and ominous cover, I just knew that I had to part with my money and dive headlong in. I must admit that as much as the cover swayed me, my initial impression upon reading the blurb was that it sounded somewhat akin to a Stephen King, Dan Simmons or Robert McCammon styled take on childhood but that illusion was dispelled very, very quickly. This is an altogether far more brutal and primal look at innocence lost than the aforementioned have conjured up. “The House of Nodens” is a nightmare of broken lives, ritualistic sacrifice and slaughter that feels like David Fincher directing a cosmic/ folk horror themed detective film.
The central protagonist is Bill Simmons, who as a young child befriends a group of school outsiders who dub themselves “The Cemetery League” and meet in a clubhouse they construct in the woods of New Milford, Connecticut. However something ancient and malevolent resides there and insidiously works its way into their psyches with horrific consequences for Bill, his friends and the world at large. The immediate thought on reading this description would be to think that this sounds somewhat akin to King’s “IT.” However, whereas that monster of a novel can be considered a loose template of sorts, “The House of Nodens” is a very different breed of beast; lean and mean with a voracious hunger for meat and mayhem.
Much like King’s novel, the narrative jumps back and forth between Bill’s childhood and his adult life. Gafford’s deft writing is great at conveying both the joy of friendship and the cruel deceptions that lurk beneath childhood relationships. A duality that extends into the present as Bill contends with the harsh realities of adulthood. Troubled by vague memories and terrifying visions, his world is irrevocably altered when he’s brought in to aid police with a murder investigation involving one of his childhood friends. From hereon out, Bill’s life spirals further out of control as he finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past and hounded by the ominous presence that is Nodens.
Up until this point, my familiarity with Nodens was principally based around the version that was presented in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, namely that of a benevolent deity opposed to the malevolent Old Ones. The version presented here however is a malignant representation of the ancient Celtic God of hunting and one that delights in entrapping and corrupting people for its own pleasure and plans.
Gafford excels at creating this menacing and oppressive sense of being stalked throughout the novel, a feeling that only intensifies once old wounds are opened and the past comes screaming back into the present. This is typified in the mirroring of Bill’s efforts to reconnect with the past with an ongoing FBI investigation into a serial killer who has eluded the law for decades. The plot strands weave in and out of each other, leading you down paths of misdirection and confusion until you are left wondering who is innocent or guilty and what constitutes fact or fiction. You feel like you are in this tense game of cat and mouse where the resolution is far from clear but you just intrinsically know that it is not going to end well for all involved.
Whilst the story does feel somewhat familiar, “The House of Nodens” wears its influences well and delivers a satisfyingly bleak slice of dark hued horror fiction that is worthy of investigation.