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Burnt Island (2013): The Chapel of Ritual

Alice Thompson, Burnt Island (Salt Publishing, 2013)

A watercolor on the book's cover depicts the reader staring out to sea over a piece of driftwood.

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.
photo credit: theasylum.wordpress.com

If you are a fan of books about writers and horror novels, you have probably read this setup a number of times before: a novelist suffering writer’s block is offered space and time to complete his new novel by another writer. Writer A gratefully accepts, finds his host to be charming if a little off, and then, over the next few days, comes to believe that writer B is putting him up in order to have him finish the book, kill him, and publish it under writer B’s name. It’s not an original premise, but few things are in the horror world these days, and so whether or not it works comes down to style. Burnt Island has got itself style in spades, and it draws inspiration, unless I miss my guess, from a place or two one doesn’t normally see in this sort of thing. The result is maybe a few steps short of greatness, but it is quite good.

Max Long has been struggling with his new novel, a horror piece, for a long time. As these things sometimes go, he can’t figure out how to get past a sticking point. He’s also having problems in his non-professional life; his marriage has come to an end, and he misses his child something fierce. An offer of a fellowship on Burnt Island seems like just the thing, and when long arrives, he finds it almost impossibly bucolic. The only problem: the island is also home to James Fairfax, a much more popular writer and one Max has always considered a rival. It soon comes out, however, that Fairfax is behind the fellowship, and the two of them start spending time together. It doesn’t hurt any that Fairfax has quite a lovely maid/PA and Max is on the rebound.

If the idea of “protagonist goes out to secluded island and is seduced by someone close to antagonist” sounds familiar, well, you don’t have to look any farther than The Wicker Man. It strikes me, however, that Burnt Island draws more from The Wicker Man‘s source material, Ritual. Not necessarily in any plot points, etc., though there is a mystery to be solved, and it has the same sorts of choking tendrils that consume David Hanlin (the inspector who would become Sergeant Howie in the film version), but the greatest debt Alice Thompson owes to Ritual is its atmosphere and the interloper’s reaction to it. There is something off about the island in both cases, and we have a protagonist who spends far too much time trying to make the island conform to his view of it rather than trying to adapt to it. Burnt Island‘s conclusion is a good deal less ambiguous than Ritual‘s; whether you consider this a good or a bad thing is left to the individual reader. Quite interesting, and worth your time if you’ve a thing for supernatural mysteries. ***

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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