Monday, March 2, 2015

In the Light: Review

It must be  local legend but legends were based on something real, something scary

In the Light is the fourth and final book in S.P. Miskowki's Skillute Cycle. A novella that brings an end to the terror that had plagued Skillute, Washington for decades. The story takes place some years after the events of Knock Knock and Astoria. It is broken up into three parts, each from the perspective of an individual character. Part one centers on Ruth, a young girl of eleven or twelve. Part two is Alicia, the wife of Henry Colquitt. Part three is Henry Colquitt, Marietta's son, and one of the main characters from Knock Knock.

The book begins with Ruth running from two bullies, Orton and Gretchen. Desperate to escape them, Ruth clumsily slips through some barbed wire and stumbles upon the ruins of an old house, a house steeped in local legend. Stumbling through a morass of wild blackberries and grass, Ruth came upon a clearing and decided to sit. Scratching away at the cold, hard ground, she discovered a tiny metal lid. After some shifting and finagling, the lid came off. Inside were the charred remains of a baby, a secret that never should have been discovered. A secret that reawakened an ancient terror thought to have been put to eternal rest at the end of Knock Knock. Having no idea what she really discovered, Ruth takes the charred remains home, and what transpires is nothing short of terrifying, as Skillute is once again plunged into darkness and fear, ultimately leading to a climactic, pulse-pounding confrontation between the past and present. 

Miskowski weaves a tale that is charged with emotional depth, and permeated with a subtle terror that continuously builds, page after page. You can feel the terror slowly burrowing into your mind, body, and soul; eager to gestate within, as you are reluctant, yet excited, to turn to the next page. Miskowki's brilliance truly lies in her fluid prose; her ability to create an atmosphere redolent with fear, oppression, and a sense of otherness; and her development of flawed, believable characters. Just like the other books in the Skillute Cycle, In the Light is just as much a character study as it is a tale of Horror and the Weird, and Miskowski weaves it all together seamlessly.  

Ruth is relatively new to Skillute. Her parents work in real estate and make a great deal of money, providing them with an affluent life. They are constantly making improvements to their house, with the hopes of selling it later, but they are also looking to buy the Colquitt property. With her parents being so busy with work, Ruth, for the most part, is neglected, and not so much treated like a child, but more like an experiment. Her parents are always trying to revise or improve her, much like the houses they flip. She's forbidden to "dwell," "wallow," or "delve" into anything they considered to be weird. Any thoughts on the grim or morbid side were also forbidden, and considered dangerous; she was to focus on only the positive side of things. All of this may be a combination of her parents being concerned for Ruth, and also because they want to keep a squeaky clean image, and to maintain a happy, affluent life. In reality, Ruth's parents know absolutely nothing about her, and any thoughts and ideas they have about her are completely inaccurate. Because of her fascination with the macabre and all things weird, Ruth is very much an outsider in Skillute, she has absolutely nothing in common with her fellow classmates, so it's no surprise that she was hoping the charred remains she discovered might bring something fun and fascinating into her life; however, as time progressed--and the remains hidden under her bed--Ruth began to undergo a transformation. She began to act differently, displaying aggressiveness and committing cruel acts; she was taken over by an ancient evil. When the big snowfall hit Skillute, schools were closed and everyone barricaded themselves in their homes. Ruth's mother was going stir crazy, and grew tired of Ruth being in the house the whole time, so she sent her out into snow-covered streets. All the snow created an isolated, alien world, and it all belonged to Ruth, as she instinctively made her way to the Colquitt's. 

Henry and Alicia Colquitt are not the same as they were in Knock Knock. The terrible tragedy that took place forever changed them, especially Henry. He used to be a man of conviction. He was a community man who loved to help in any way he could. He gave sermons in his makeshift church; he provided food and other services for the elderly. He and Alicia were always attending dinner parties, and loved to dress in nice clothes. Alicia loved to organize charities, babysit, assist Henry in ceremonies, and even made mortgage payment for a neighbor who was on the verge of losing their house. Once tragedy struck their family, though, everything changed. The Colquitt's, over time, began to give in to shyness, becoming introverts. They kept their shades down, and even disconnected their land line; they experienced social death, as they cut off contact from almost everyone. Henry even gave up giving sermons at his church. Preaching was pointless. He realized that no one ever listened to what he had to say, and never took responsibility for their actions and words. He was a broken man, whose life was mired in scandal and a bizarre tragedy. To give himself some kind of purpose, Henry came up with the idea to build a shelter for the homeless, but to no avail. He tried to persuade the Dempsey's to get on board with it, but they wouldn't hear of it. The residents of Skillute objected to change, rejecting anything that was unfamiliar to them. Henry was "upsetting the balance of the world." Through all of this, Henry learned just how stubborn and brutish the world can be. 

Developing such rich, multi-layered characters really draws you into the entire Skillute Cycle. These characters are no different from you and I. Some are nice, and some are mean. Some of these characters make bad decisions, whether it's out of selfishness or to help others. You take a vested interest in their lives, their personalities, their flaws and idiosyncrasies. And the lurking, under the surface terror that pervades everything, it plays a role in emphasizing the lives and problems of these characters, and illuminates a variety of issues that this book--and the whole series--is about. 

In the Light also delves into that sense of otherness that is such a potent ingredient of Weird Fiction. While the other books certainly have that ingredient, In the Light outright addresses it:

What did Henry call it? The vast. The unknown always beside us, breathing with us, its face inclined toward ours when the lamp is turned off. Spirit, or shadow, that which disappears in the light. It had a thousand names and no one knew its origin or nature.

That is the essence of the Weird, and it's there, right outside the periphery of everyone. In Skillute, reality as perceived by its residents is not what it appears to be. And for the case of some people involved, you are not what you think you are, and the revelations are nothing short of devastating.  

I won't give away spoilers, but In the Light is the perfect end to an incredible series. The Skillute Cycle isn't just about an otherwordly horror. It's about broken families and fractured childhoods. It's people trying to escape their past, only to learn that they must face it, and come to terms with it. It's about the power of legend and folklore, and how legend can sometimes become fact. And it's also about forgiveness and second chances. Miskowki's world has left an indelible mark on me. She has set the bar really high, and exemplifies the kind of Horror and storytelling that others in the field should strive to write. I enjoyed my time in Skillute immensely. The thing about Skillute, though, is that it will always find a way to bring you back. In fact, I can already feel it's pull. It's only a matter of time. 

Oh, one more thing. Miskowski gets bonus points for referencing Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat.

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