The Nightmarchers by J. Lincoln Fenn

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The jungle can do tricky things to the Western mind that lacks spiritual protection.

Julia Greer’s life has crumbled, formerly living in an enormous Victorian in Palto Alto with her now ex-husband Ethan and their daughter Evie, she is now trapped in a bleak apartment off the freeway longing for her child, whom Ethan has fully custody of. Money is power,  and Ethan has it all, why did she sign the prenuptial agreement? Why did she ever give up her work as an investigative journalist to be the sort of wife that reflected beautifully on the very man who has taken everything she loved from her? Is he really the great cold manipulator she tells us?

Then comes a letter from her estranged and very wealthy great-aunt , Dr. Lydia Greer. Julia’s memories aren’t fond ones of the old woman, whom surely must be ancient now. Too young at their last meeting, she hasn’t spent much time ruminating over why her mother left so abruptly, ending the visit. Certainly there hasn’t been any communication from her great aunt since, but if she’s learned anything lately, its that money is the only chance she has to tackle her mounting debts, and more importantly, have a chance at getting her daughter back. Money matters, her Aunt is asking her to tea, what could it hurt? This may well be the means to hire a good lawyer to help set things right for she and Evie.

What Julia learns is that her Aunt will give her a lot of money to travel to a remote island, her task simply to smuggle samples of a mysterious flower that her sister Irene had written about decades ago before her suspicious death. The leader of the Church of Eternal Light, according to her aunt, must be hiding not just the real reason for her sister’s demise, but the true properties of the plant. It is risky, but she will have tools to communicate, unlike the others that go for escape from the modern world. Lydia has the means to help her get Evie back. What choice does Julia have? Others would agree to more for far less, and she is desperate!

1939 Irene Greer has set up camp in Kapu and is forging ahead collecting specimens for her sister back home, while tolerating the occasional visits from the Reverend.  She is nursing her wounds, after the horrible touch of tragedy. As time stretches, her ‘ignorant foreign ways’ wears off, and she befriends a young orphan Agnes, who shares her knowledge of Kapu with Irene. Letters home are filled with the thrill of discoveries until she writes of illness, and her musings turn dark, strange. Is it madness that led her to believe she saw a line of warriors marching with her dead husband Charles and daughter Lila?  Are the locals supersitions eating into her common sense? Was it simply illness that caused her to jump to her death into the falls, following them into some other world? There couldn’t possible be truth in her mad writings, could there? After all this time, as much as then, Lydia isn’t convinced by the Reverend’s assurance that it was all just a tragedy, possibly a plant that caused delusions. Irene’s body was never returned home. It is the perfect cover for Julia’s visit, there only to solve the mystery with disinternment- while in truth she searches for the plant.

Present day, deep into the challenge set forth by her aunt, Julia is beginning to think there is far more to the tale than her aunt let on. The religious cult is odd, it’s leader menacing, treating outsiders like her as if they are a disease. He is special, born of the island, a survivor. There are strange rules, dangerous insects and Noah. Noah, who seems to have his own motives for being on the island, can she trust him? Can she trust herself? The place begins to play with her mind, both she and her deceased aunt Irene had lost their child and spouse (to death or abandonment). Maybe with their family history,  losing her grip on reality like Irene did all those years ago, is the product of stress, sadness? Who is this child now helping her? Why always a child?

The island itself is an important character, not just for the atmosphere. It is rooted in superstition, true, but nature itself is deadly, mysterious particularly to an outsider. It can be friend or foe. At every turn she is forced to face off with the elements, more alive than the visitors, more dangerous even. Still it remains the nature of human beings that are the real scary part of this novel. I enjoyed Irene’s letters, and Aunt Lydia is a tough bird, a perfect character for this story (though I won’t go into why), someone whose intelligence is still sharp and can pierce you even in her years of decline.

The motives of some are downright chilling. The advance of science can sometimes be monstrous too. We are all ‘hungry’, we want the answers, we want to play God. Sometimes Science can make convincing excuses for it’s horrors, but nature can be just as brutal.

I liked the beginning with Irene, I have a thing for the past. I didn’t necessarily feel invested in Julia’s plight, I began to think – maybe you just offer yourself to be a victim.  The ending, I get it… I think… but it is weird. Will she take Kapu with her, or will Kapu take her? Maybe even her ‘clever’ aunt is out of her element too, doesn’t truly know just how powerful this thing is. Is the Reverend just a creepy cult leader, high on the mysteries of the island or is he on the verge of Eternal Light? I still don’t know for sure. I am not sure the ending resolved all my questions.

Publication Date: October 1, 2018

Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books

 

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Heartbreaker: A Novel by Claudia Dey

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This was the smell my mother was giving off now in our front hallway- an unfinished space, an open body cavity, an open grave.

A cult trapped in the 1980s makes for one strangely unique read. Told in three parts by Girl, Dog and Boy, what does it say about me that I devoured the chapters told in the dog’s voice? Well, I did. When not scavenging through discarded junk or trying to be hot like that ‘girl in the Whitesnake video’ our narrator Pony is trying to understand what happened to her mother who has disappeared. Living on a tract of land called ‘the territory’ that the Leader and his followers landed on, we are told that Pony’s mother ended up their seventeen years ago, always an outsider, after a car accident. Her father, ‘the Heavy’ a solid, tragically scarred man doesn’t understand his  beautiful mysterious wife, Billie Jean (not likely her real name) and the others never fully trust her. Isolated from the rest of the world, how far could her mother have gone?

In truth, her mother had been folding in on herself for months, tormented by some inner turmoil and not noticing that Pony too is facing her own emotional ‘storms’ coming of age, the only virgin ripe for the sons. Her father is already set apart from the other men, a mystery. Supernatural is the only boy Pony finds interesting, because of his intelligence not because he is the best looking, he seems nothing like the other boys who think only of sex. Supernatural has everyone in his thrall, simply for being touched by perfection, light, even if he doesn’t feel that way. The relationship between Pony and her mother wasn’t always strained, they shared a separate life for themselves through swimming but Billie Jean’s past before the territory remains shrouded in mystery, prevents a deeper bond between mother and daughter. A life Billie Jean only wants to forget, erase. Was it all about disappearing, just what is out there, beyond the territory? What was she escaping?

What about the dog, what does dog know? Why was it speaking to her mother and her mother to it? “She was always in motion. Always between things. Talking to herself.” All Pony wants is for her mother, the mother both she and her father remember, to surface.

Dog knows a lot of things, shares an intimacy with Billie Jean beyond any human relationship, even if daughter Pony has been the one tracking her mother. Pony, the only child dog can tolerate because, dog tells us ‘Children are manipulators, hysterics, vaudevillians.’ This pet, whom we do not name because in the territory only people get named, is closest to Billie Jean in the three months she hid away in her bedroom. Dog is wise and witty, loyal.  Dog tells us how the territory began, who John (the leader) was and how he escaped Suburbia only to recreate it. It is with deep pleasure Dog has a name, a name bestowed upon by Billie Jean. Dog knows her sorrows and her history, all the secrets of her tragic past.

But what does Boy know? How is he involved? Maybe the territory has secrets of its own, maybe boy’s secret is the biggest. Just who is the Heartbreaker? This novel is an original to be sure, the people are weird, of all the decades for a cult to cling to this leant humor to a moving, sad tale. There is satisfaction in uncovering what led Billie Jean to remain in the territory all those years ago and her choices, mistakes then and now are easy to relate to. Mother as mystery, how many daughters look at their mother’s just this way? How many daughters will themselves be mysteries to their own children one day? Billie Jean wants escape, but instead takes great risks that leave her far more vulnerable, create bigger secrets and deceptions that pull others in and leaves a hell of a mess in her wake.

Publication Date: August 21, 2018

Random House

 

To the Moon and Back A Childhood Under the Influence by Lisa Kohn

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At first I had no idea that anything was wrong with my childhood.

I have a vague memory as a very young child and a newscast of a lot of people marrying one another (strangers to each other) in Madison Square Garden, and my parents mumbling something about it being ‘crazy’. I was a kid, dazzled by the many brides so when reading this memoir about the Unification Church (which some still call the Moonies and consider a cult) it clicked that this is the group from that long ago newscast. People often talk of Bohemian childhoods, but Lisa’s far surpasses many ‘hippie’ stories, her parents were free spirits that ‘stuck out’ even among those of their generation. Sure, she watched Jefferson Airplane in central park but her childhood was anything but carefree and charmed. “Mimi had tried on religions and movements like some women try on clothes.” Mimi, her mother, falls under the spell of Father ( Reverend Moon)- not her real father Danny (whom isn’t one for the label father anyway) when hearing him speak she found her purpose in life. Her children are dragged along by her passion for the religion.

When her parents first met, her mother was a straight A student, daughter of a judge while her father, Danny was ‘the beatnik son of socialist intellectualists’. Rushing headfirst into marriage the summer they were out of highschool, having children, her father attending college for a time, their marriage didn’t last long and her parents divorced. Danny moved to New York while Lisa, her mother Mimi and brother Robbie lived in New Jersey.  Her father, a bartender and partaker of serious drugs had always been ‘anti-establishment’, and certainly isn’t able to provide stability anymore than her mother who is swallowed by the Church. A mother who once made the children suffer through micro-biotic diets, sugar-free living, a tv-less existence, an abusive boyfriend and whatever new fad caught her attention now pushes her children away to devote her entire being to the cause of Reverend Moon. While her mother needed to find truth and meaning, and their father came and went with the wind, Lisa and her brother relied on themselves confused by the differences in their parents lifestyles, slowly becoming aware just how strange their lives, their parents were in comparison to their peers.

“These were the beliefs that wrapped themselves like creeping vines around my mind as I grew up- during my most formative preadolescent and adolescent years- always clasping tighter and holding my life, my soul, and my sense of self together.” Lisa becomes just as enraptured as her mother, she learns to share the love and sell the ideas of the church on strangers, and friends alike. Love-bombing people with the hopes they will join, not exactly appealing to fellow students. Lisa and her brother Robbie fall in love with the positive energy and the always smiling fellow moonies. It isn’t long before they become close to the ‘True Children’, top of the hierarchy. The church becomes more their ‘real life’ than school and home, soon their mother is no longer living with them, her devotion solely to the church-  her ‘calling’. Living with their grandfather “Pop”, she begins to shoulder adult responsibilities. Rather than feeling anger towards her mom, she just assures herself that it’s an important sacrifice her mother has to make, and Lisa should feel proud. Easier said than done.

When her Pop is admitted to a psych hospital it is Danny’s turn to house Lisa and her brother. Danny’s lifestyle is loud, carefree, filled with late hours, crazy wild friends and there is little chance of him putting his partying ways and drug abuse aside. He is as passionate about coccaine as her mother is about Reverend Moon and his teachings. Living with their mother, not an option, Lisa is unwanted. Her ‘puritanical’ church beliefs begin to collide with her peers, who are more interested in skipping school and experimenting with drugs, sex, all things forbidden youth loves to flirt with. Danny’s way of life too is antithesis to the Church of Unification’s values, exposing his children to everything the church reviles.

As time goes on, her mother moves often and seems to drift further from her children. As Lisa comes of age, she becomes a groupie, discovers she and her brother are banished  (considered impure) for a time, and begins to question this church she once felt devoted to with all her being. Then there is Stuart, and first love. Her life is in turmoil -just what does she believe in? Church rules change, now she can’t even be with True Children, due to Reverend Moon’s latest decree, because people like her are a ‘satanic influence’. She begins to experience new forbidden things away from the church. Drinking, dancing, parties, boys and eventually Cornel. She begins to crack. It takes years, but she begins to emerge from her difficult childhood and the influence of both her parents and the church. While suffering with an eating disorder she proves even her therapist wrong with her pregnancy, already trying her best to be a better mother than her own. Finding that with her first-born child, old fears rise. A life spent distancing herself from her past involvement with the church comes full circle in the last chapter, Reunion.

I was thinking about the whole ‘cult/church’ aspect and thought ‘really families themselves are a little like cults’. What family is without its strange habits or demands? What family doesn’t warp the mind a little of each member? Now add an actual cult (outside influences) to your own family chaos and you can imagine Lisa’s struggle. If we spend our adulthood recovering from our families and childhood, how does one manage to recover from life in an actual cult? How does a woman learn to be a solid, present mother and wife?

This is a first person account of a life inside a cult, or church, depending on who you ask! Facing pain, rejection, abandonment, the confusing chaos of two parents who are equally destructive forces in her childhood, Lisa Koon somehow creates a stable, healthy beautiful life out of the ashes of her childhood.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Heliotrope Books