Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Skillute Cycle by S.P Miskowski

Enter Skillute, WA: a small, blue collar town that is pretty much ignored by outsiders. A rural black hole, a town that grabs ahold of you and doesn't let go. Men grow old and pass the time by drinking beer, and the women grow up and pass the time playing bingo and gossiping among one another. The town has some dark moments in its history, and the books themselves give a look at Skillute over 50+ years.

The main narrative doesn't focus as much on the town itself, as it does a select few people populating the town, and how they're affected by living in such a place. At the heart of the narrative are three women: Ethel, Beverly and Marietta. Knock Knock, the first novel, follows these women over a 50+  year period, starting when they are young girls.

Knock Knock is a powerful debut, opening strong and ending with a punch. The three girls at the heart of the story are revolted by a health class video and from a fellow student's story about how her mother's pregnancy is enacting gross changes on the woman. The three set out into the woods, where they conduct a small ritual and make a pact. Unbeknownst to them at the time, there is something of a cruel and dark nature that they awake, setting in motion events that take several decades to come to an end. 

Miskowski's novel follows the girls as they grow old, all while something dark is stirring under the surface. Beverly has an edge to her, a sarcasm that seems a self defense mechanism. She's strong, and learns some of life's hard lessons early on when she has a teen pregnancy, which her parents hide until the baby is born and can be given away for adoption. Over the years she marries, and becomes a widow, yet she remains strong and independent.

Ethel grows up in a broken household. Her parents are drunks, and her mother has a cruel streak, bringing other men home and spending much of her time out at bars. Tragedy strikes early, leaving Ethel to be raised by an aunt. Ethel is the meek one of the bunch. She's quiet, polite. She goes along with things. It isn't until middle age that Ethel finds love and marries, and even gets pregnant. It's clear from the start that something is wrong with her daughter.

Marietta is the mysterious one. The girl raised by her aunt, a midwife that many refer to as being a witch. Strange things happen around Marietta, and she sees things no one else sees. 

The narrative's strength lies in restraint. Much of it is ambiguous. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Ethel is home alone with her baby, Connie Sara. The baby reminds her of her mother, and just silently stares at her, following her from room to room. Ethel becomes frightened, and is then torn. Is something wrong with her or is something wrong with the baby? Is it only in her head? Maybe she's not fit to be a mother? Maybe everyone is right and she was too old to have a baby? Why does her husband not seem to have a difficult time like she does? The paranoia and fear is so well handled that the reader doesn't know what to believe. 

Miskowski does a fine job of giving the reader a glimpse into the horrors of womanhood: Beverly's teen pregnancy and forced adoption, Marietta's abusive brute of a husband and sacrifices she has to make, Ethel and the horrors of parenting. These are trials that many women have had to face, and are all too real.

Knock Knock can be read alone, and is one of the better weird horror novels of the past few years, but the full story unfolds over three more novellas, all of which are published by Omnium Gatherum.

The first novella in the cycle, Delphine Dodd, is a prequel and is a first person account as told by Marietta's aunt Delphine. One of the more interesting characters in Knock Knock, Delphine Dodd only appeared briefly as a wise old woman. This novella gives readers her backstory. The majority of the novella follows Delphine as a child, when she, along with her sister, are dropped off at their grandmothers house. Her grandmother is a healer, midwife, "witch of the woods" type, and it is from her that Delphine learns her trade. The other part of the novel follows Delphine a few decades later, when she moves to Skillute, and shows the history of the malevolent force in Knock Knock.

The second novella, Astoria, takes place during the time frame of Knock Knock, and follows Ethel after we last saw her. This gives more closure to her character, and although it mostly takes place outside of Skillute's borders, it may be my favorite of the bunch. The narrative is surreal, with small oddities bringing a strong sense of doom throughout, leading to a wonderful conclusion. Miskowski is at her best here.

The cycle ends with In the Light, which takes place several years after the events of Knock Knock. The first half of the novella focuses on Ruth, a young new girl who recently moved to Skillute, and the second half follows Henry Colquitt, a former pastor and son of Marietta. Everything comes full circle in this volume, providing readers with a solid conclusion. 

S.P. Miskowski has become one of my favorite writers with these books. Fans of weird fiction, and dark small town stories should pick these up without hesitation. While I'm sad my time in Skillute has come to an end, I look forward to seeing what Miskowski does next.

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