By T.M. Wright (Tor; 1988)
This was the book that turned me onto the work of T.M. Wright. I’m not sure how THE ISLAND is ranked by Wright fans overall–his best-known works are STRANGE SEED, A MANHATTAN GHOST STORY and COLD HOUSE–but for me it’s among the absolute best of Wright’s thirty-plus novels.
Anyone doubting Wright’s peculiar genius need only read THE ISLAND’S opening pages, in which an ice fisherman is mesmerized by the sight of a woman’s face gazing up at him through a hole in the ice. The surreal imagery and malignant atmosphere of the sequence, both effortlessly evoked, are sustained throughout the remainder of the book, which takes place in the Adirondack Mountain region of New York in the dead of winter.
There Arnaut Verge, an eccentric middle aged man with an endearingly shaky grasp of the English language, runs a tourist resort on the edge of a vast lake. Eight years earlier his wife drowned in that very lake, yet he’s stayed put. So has Lynette Meyer, who was married to the fisherman of the opening scene, who himself met his end in the lake.
Also lurking in the area are the ghosts of a family who were asphyxiated in their house ten years earlier. That house was formerly located on a tiny island in the middle of the lake but now resides under the water, having slid into the depths shortly after its owners breathed their last. The ghosts are especially active during the chilly winter season, and are stirring to “life” within the silence and coldness of the submerged house.
For those in the area who are still alive, weirdness begins in earnest when one of the inn’s guests finds himself powerless to stop his legs from carrying him into the lake. There’s also an inhuman entity that manifests itself as a pasty dude with blue eyes, and an apparent apparition of the once-standing house that appears on the aforementioned island, complete with spectral forms glimpsed moving about inside.
Don’t expect any sort of conventional explanation for any of this, as Wright has never much cared for such things. Suffice it to say that some unknowable supernatural force is suffusing the area, apparently centered on the island.
Wright is a celebrated poet in addition to a novelist, and his aims are poetic in nature. This languid, haunting book is nothing less than an evocative meditation on death and longing that operates on an entirely different level than Tor’s rather trashy packaging suggests.
Yet the novel is quite entertaining nonetheless. The eerie charge of Wright’s prose is riveting, and he has a compellingly bent sense of humor. The English challenged Aranut’s garbled phrases are by themselves small mind-twisting gems (“You‘ve haphazardly walked mid coldness in these trying times without much fortune”…“It seems that once a day some repair grows up and knocks me on the knee”). Equally memorable are the frequent flashbacks to the lives of the family who lived in the island house in the days before it slid into the lake, haunted by an odd sense of something enveloping them…something dark, menacing and very, very cold.