Title: The Keepers
Author: Tan Van Huizen
When City Reporter, Don Williams, arrives in small-town Titicut to investigate an unsolved case, Elias Hicks, the Chief of Police, is not happy. He has secrets to keep, and so do the surrounding swamplands…
The Keepers begins with a suitably biblical Prologue, set in 1620, which gives some context and intriguing hints of supernatural activity, and then the reader is transported straight into early September, 1983, in the township of Titicut, Southern Massachusetts.
The strength and chilling intensity of The Keepers is in the characterization. Individuals are well-observed, oddly sinister, and teetering on the brink of lunacy like Henry James, or defeated, world-weary specimens with a touch of low, animal cunning, such as Cam and Darrah.
All portrayals, even the more homespun, like Barbara Stevens, are heavy with pathos and an uneasy foreboding. Carl Jenkins, a pathetic, broken shell of a man, was written with particular thoughtfulness and underlying compassion, as was Whitey, Cam’s dog.
Don Williams, the ever-so-slightly naïve reporter from the City is a fairly stock character. Nonetheless, he manages to stay the right side of the stereotype, while maintaining that air of irritating nosiness that investigative journalists tend to possess, and one which the reader is unsure as to whether it will get them further in or out of trouble.
Then there is Chief Elias Hicks, whose depiction is a masterclass in barely restrained malevolence, fury, and skin-crawling nastiness masquerading as benevolence. His monologue to Cam Jenkins concerning his youngest son, Edward, in chapter eight is pure writing gold.
Throughout, dialogue is robustly authentic and, in places, grimly hilarious which nicely complements the seam of cynical humor that trickles through the narrative. The wryly amusing chapter headings are an example of this and work well.
Small town Titicut and the swamps are fertile ground for the unfolding horror, and their peculiar gloom is used to disconcerting effect. By placing the main story at the faded end of Summer, the narrative is shot through with an additional, creeping sense of decay, coloring the prose with the shadowy tones of Autumnal melancholy.
Consequently, the writing is comprehensively sprinkled with some lovely, descriptive imagery both in terms of characters’ physicalities and the small-town environment. The Keepers is a book to invest time and lose yourself in. Notwithstanding the subject matter, it provides a comfortably reassuring and immersive read due to the beautifully accomplished prose and steady, building rhythm.
The overall plot is strong and fairly original with a couple of tangents, such as Officer Hardy’s pursuit of Cam, which are separate yet ultimately connected. There are a few moments in the last quarter of the novel where the plotline threatens to become a touch woolly, and the manifestation of the horror could have been introduced a shade earlier. However, when it does appear, it is convincingly gruesome and there are some gore-splattered, visceral scenes.
There is an unexpected yet credible twist toward the conclusion, but it could be levelled that the ending is a little half-finished in its ambiguity. However, it does leave the reader free to exercise their imagination, and also neatly sets up the possibility of a second book which, if half as good as The Keepers, will definitely be worth a look.
The Keepers is an excellently written horror story, absorbing the reader into a gripping and darkly atmospheric story with an old-school Stephen King vibe. It has a cast of wonderfully realized characters, making this a horribly compelling read.
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