Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Letterbox by Cameron Trost

There exists a broad spectrum of dark fiction writers here in Australia who have been around for a lengthy time. Where others have dropped away after few short years of surveying the landscape, there remains a loyal contingent of others here to stay – no matter what the publishing backdrop may look like at any given time. Trost is one such person – a writer who has spent years diligently chipping away at the shorter form. In 2011, Naked Snake Press took notice of his emerging prowess, deciding to publish the debut novel Letterbox.

Beginning with a prologue that gives subtle clues and sketches out a monster in the making, we witness the genesis of evil in the form a child – one who, after a lifetime of bullying, uses his lofty intelligence to experiment on insects and how they cope with stress when pitted against external barriers. When the child’s own external world continues to crumble, it isn’t long before he begins to daydream of what it might be like to place a human being in lieu of his original subjects …

Cut to present day and the moors of Cornwell. Adjacent to these ancient lands sits the town of Mirebury – a minuscule English community where school teacher Ian Carew has decided to establish himself after leaving London. His elderly neighbor, Mrs. Mary Hopkins, acts as kind of surrogate mother ... while his best friend is the local butcher. Mirebury seems to fit the small town rural profile to a tea, and the only thing missing from Ian’s life is a life-partner to share the adventure with.

Our set up is reminiscent of numerous outings, and after introducing us to many of the town’s inhabitants, Trost begins to dollop on the dark happenings. At first it’s a macabre keepsake placed in the letterbox of Mrs. Mary Hopkins – then a series of elusive break-ins. Soon other people are targeted, and before long Mirebury begins to realize it is under the watchful gaze of a dark entity who is using them like puppets on a chessboard to pit neighbor against neighbor. Aptly nicknamed The Postman by the townsfolk, they soon become fragmented as lines are drawn in the sand and no one is immune from suspicion.

As a huge fan of Needful Things by Stephen King, the premise for Letterbox was always going to appeal to me. That particular foray was the ultimate Our Town dark testament, setting off a chain of interlocking horrors through the redemption of trial, suffering, and forgiveness. Here, Trost treads a similar path – but imbues it all with an English verisimilitude. Does he succeed? For the most part, yes. At first, the prose is narrow, but quickly evolves - Trost becoming a more confident storyteller as the tale progresses. If there was one criticism I could level at Letterbox, it is the often sugary flavor of the town itself – Mirebury seems far too conservative and fictitious than any real life counterpart. And on occasion it’s as though the author is drawing from other classic works to flesh out his municipality. That said, for a debut effort, this is still highly accomplished – an impressive thriller and a satisfying parable of good versus evil.