Thursday, September 20, 2012

John Knauf, THE ROPEWALK: Suspense in a Maine Winter

There is no place quite as empty as a school over vacation  -- especially when you believe you are the only one in the building. History teacher Egan Drummond, divorced and accustomed to being alone, chooses to stay in an old rope factory-turned-boarding school on the Maine coast during the bitter weather of Christmas break, to push forward in the research that he thinks will finally make his name in his field.

But all too soon, Drummond finds he is sharing the building with another teacher, Margaret, and her strange young daughter. And Margaret insists there is at least one more person on hand as well, tracking the night-time corridors and trying to get into her living quarters.

Skeptical but willing to play the resourceful man on scene, Drummond attempts to find out what's going on -- and swiftly discovers he is way over his head, historically, mythologically, and in terms of courageous and heroic expectations. (Flag for those whose interests focus on Native American history and beliefs: THE ROPEWALK includes a generous amount of material involving the Abenaki.)

This is an author-published book of nearly 500 pages, and I suspect a mainstream publisher would have cut it by 25 percent. The plot would have moved faster, and the tension perhaps would have held at a higher pitch. Yet the book is highly suspenseful as it is, and after two readings (hey, I couldn't decide about it ... it happens), I think the length does the job well: The tale is tautly spun, the character reactions as realistic as they are disturbing, and the paranormal complications all too believable, considering the dark aspects of local history and prehistory that Drummund investigates.

In spite of the term "investigates," this is far from a detection novel -- the dark force can't be said to be criminal, although it is powerful and frightening. If I kept a Stephen King collection, I'd shelve THE ROPEWALK on the next shelf.

The book has already picked up an Honorable Mention from the New England Book Festival and another at the New York Book Festival, and if paranormal horror in a highly credible northern New England setting is your niche, find a copy (or two: one to hold in pristine condition, the other to re-read, thumb back and forth in, ponder, as I did with mine). As with many other author-published efforts, THE ROPEWALK leaves me with double strands of curiosity: wondering what would have become of it had the author persisted with a formal publisher and top-notch editor; and wondering what the next novel from Connecticut author and esssayist John Knauf will be like. I'll certainly want to read it.

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