David Searcy's second novel, "Last Things," is at its heart, a campfire ghost story. A carefully paced thriller, it relies on mood, psychological intimation and the ominous threat of something lurking in the shadows. Here's how Searcy puts it in the novel:
"The simplest sort of horror story (and the most gratifying somehow) starts with the damage -- something ruined in ways too peculiar to explain, glimpsed, say, at high speed along a country highway at dusk just at that rosy half-lit moment before one flips on the headlights"
The story unfolds in Gilmer, a sleepy little East Texas town, where in a hazy, too-hot autumn strange events are happening. After the loss of chickens, dogs and then devastatingly, two little girls, gruesome scarecrows begin to appear in the woods. Things get worse; no one feels safe after the mysterious murder of the sheriff. And the local greasy spoon is turned overnight into a makeshift meeting place of the growing Last Days of the Covenant Church.
Alone on the edge of town, Luther Hazlitt senses a vague and indefinable presence in the fields beyond his trailer. He begins to construct a trap for whatever is preying on, or perhaps haunting, the community.
Searcy, author of the critically acclaimed 2000 novel, "Ordinary Horror," allows the tale to unwind slowly, with intricate attention to detail. His dense, hyper-literate style and metaphysical ruminations are juxtaposed against the plain-spoken rural folk who people his landscape. Luther, for example, has "built a machine to make a mess, to make a mess of things. A machine to make no difference." He is concerned with the physical construction, with nails and wood, but he is tormented by a fear of what he might catch in the ever-more elaborate trap.
Absence heightens the mystery; the scarecrows remain throughout the novel, more creepy and horrible for being under-described. Physical realities are deftly played against the psychological aspects of fear, and Searcy uses the weather and terrain to build a somnolent, off-kilter mood, where nothing is certain or what it seems. For instance, after the death of the sheriff, the weather suddenly shifts from hot to freezing, and the story changes accordingly. Luther's plans become feverish and ornate. He thinks he might be trapping the Holy Spirit.
The spirit in question seems divine or devilish, depending on the varied perspectives of Gilmer's residents. But the true terror in Searcy's tale is not in revelation, but the lack of a concrete answer to a growing mystery. His ordinary horror springs from doubt and uncertainty.
In the classic campfire story, the madman is always still on the loose. In "Last Things," there is always the possibility that the box, the trap that Luther is constructing might in the end be the novel itself, set and ready to ensnare readers.
-- Norah Labiner is the author of two novels: "Miniatures" and "Our Sometime Sister." She lives in Minneapolis.