The Caretaker of Lorne Field (here after CoLF) by Dave Zeltserman is one of the most compelling and original horror books I have read in awhile. Probably, not since I read The Ruins by Scott Smith, have I been sad to finish a horror book. Interestingly, both books deal with a scary plant monster. Hmmm....I wonder what that says about me. Well, that's for another time.
Here is the imaginative set-up. Jack Durkin is the current caretaker of Lorne Field, somewhere in modern day, rural New England. He is the current in a 300 year line of caretakers. Durkin works from dawn until dusk every day, from spring until first frost, pulling the weeds that grow in Lorne Field.
But these are not any weeds. These weeds are monsters, known as Aukowies, a vicious monster, which if not weeded, will grow to its full form, leave the ground, and destroy the world.
The town's residents used to idolize the caretaker and his family. Their every need was cared for, but new, younger people have taken over the town's government and they are fed up with supporting the caretaker. They see his work as nothing but a superstition let go too long. Even Durkin's oldest son, who is supposed to take over for Durkin on the boy's 21st birthday, doesn't believe in the Aukowies.
So that's the premise. What follows is the story of Durkin's undoing. It is a slow, painful, sorrowful, and compelling undoing.
The appeal of this book is in that unique plot, but it is also in how Zeltserman tells the story. Throughout the book we see mostly Durkin's point of view. When we see the field through his eyes, we are convinced that the Aukowies are there, but at times, we get the point of view of others. When these others intrude, the reader begins to question our own undying support for and belief in Durkin. The entire novel, even up to its final paragraph, is a battle for our support. I still don't know which side to fall on, but I am leaning toward Durkin's.
Zeltserman writes in a personal way. Durkin's feelings, his hopes and dreams, his belief in what is just and right, and his physical travails are all outlined in great detail. He writes in a style that allows the reader to join Durkin in his work. I felt like we became friends while I was reading CoLF. I wanted to stand up to those who questioned the man and his work. This is a testament to the author's writing. Without this close, personal style, the book wouldn't work. The reader would not care, much like the townsfolk, whether Durkin weeds the field or not.
This is not a long book, but the pace builds slowly with the tension and suspense along for the ride. Each chapter feels more urgent than the one before, until the last few, when the entire world is spiraling out of control. In the final court room scene, things have slowed down. As the final proof of whether Durkin is sane and correct or insane, a murderer, and completely wrong comes, I was holding my breath. And honestly, you can read the open ending however you want. Either answer could be right. I loved that!
I know Zeltserman is a rising star in the crime fiction world, but I truly hope he visits horror again some time soon.
Three Words That Describe This Book: Legend, Real or Not, Tightly Wound.
Readalikes: Besides the aforementioned The Ruins, I would also suggest that readers who like the modern legend part of CoLF, try Terry Windling's excellent editing in the revisionist fairy tale series, or the works of Neil Gaiman, who mines legend in original and dark ways to create some of the best books I have ever read. Anansi Boys in particular takes the African folktale of the trickster spider and turns it into a compelling story in which the reader is questioning what is real and what isn't, much like in CoLF.
Zeltserman's writing style (tightly wound, intense, building suspense, flawed but lovable protagonist, a pacing that begins at a crawl, but slowly moves toward light speed) all reminded me of Joe Hill.
For other great, subtle horror featuring monsters, I would also suggest Dweller by Jeff Strand (newer title) and Song of Kali by Dan Simmons (backlist option).
Finally, if you liked the movie Black Swan, you will love CoLF. Both require the reader/viewer to make a choice as to what parts of the story are "real" or not. Both will also make you squirm throughout their duration...and you will love it!
Steven King would love this book, if he hasn't read it himself already.