Written by: James Keen
“Between waves, the hush grew so quiet he imagined he could hear things moving beneath the sand, hidden things, secret things.” – The Shore.
Vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters and malevolent spirits and the folklore inspired by the nightmarishly and inexplicably monstrous in general all have their psychological roots in the perpetual anxieties of the human condition since time immemorial, relayed with unnerving constancy and repeatedly interpreted through storytellers and artists who give our fears and imagined horrors a comfortably fixed and defined reality. Genre fiction affords its audience insightful reflection and sober dissemination of those superstitions that are interpreted and reinvigorated by each succeeding generation. By giving voice to these anomalies of circumstance in a creative sphere they allow us the collective opportunity to engage in and explore our apprehension of the unexplainable and the inexplicably odd.
Robert Dunbar chooses to investigate an element of American folklore heretofore relatively ignored by authors intrigued by the supernatural in his book, ‘The Shore’. In his earlier novel, ‘The Pines’, Dunbar took as his monstrous antagonist the Jersey Devil myth, a peculiarly east coast originated legend and a fabled creature responsible for untold episodes of night terrors amongst the populace for nearly four hundred years. It’s a myth that apparently resonates with a malignant power even today and so it’s unsurprising that he should decide to further his creative ruminations on the infamous legend in his follow-up story, ‘The Shore’. The geography and the seasonal settings might be fractionally altered (in the ‘The Pines’ we’re landlocked and in the sweaty grip of Summer, whereas in ‘The Shore’ we’re invariably beach-bound and beholden to the icy embrace of Winter) but it’s essentially another absorbing and harrowing exploration of the differing facets ascribed to this seemingly irrepressible supernatural entity.
After opening with a grisly flourish, followed by a deliberately perplexing chapter that details the attempts of one character’s failed attempt to capture a young boy on the beach of Edgeharbor, Dunbar’s smoothly calculated narrative then goes on to slowly and carefully illustrate his wintry setting. Edgeharbor is understandably dependent upon the Summer tourist trade and so, in a bleak and icy January many of it’s inhabitants have fled for warmer climes leaving the small town with a barely functioning populace and a brutally spartan economy. Even the local law enforcement division is a skeleton crew comprised of an ageing sheriff, an inexperienced young deputy and a part time officer that may be instated full-time later in the year. It’s a depleted municipality ripe for the type of metaphysical corruption that a supernatural influence might instil without check.
Though there are plenty of bloody episodes, they’re generally alluded to and not exploited excessively. Dunbar is seemingly more concerned with recounting atmosphere and the perpetuity of mounting dread, than in the short-term pay-offs afforded by the gratifyingly shallow spectacle of gore as this is a novel more interested in mood and subtle inference. The reader, by and large, is furnished with the prospect of interpreting the motives of his protagonists, however mystifying they may at first appear to be. This makes for an agreeably intriguing proposition for the indulgent reader allowing as it does a page-turning dynamism and a narrative unpredictability that is sadly lacking in some authors, specifically those writers evidently content with delineating superficially gory spectacle along with mundanely realized characterisation to sate those hungry for the genre’s staples.
Dunbar’s prose is sophisticated in descriptive terms, delicate in arrangement and disarmingly visually and aurally evocative. In terms of storytelling verve he shares much in common with Peter Straub. This is Dunbar’s second installment of the ‘Jersey Devil’ mythology and much like Straub’s ‘Blue Rose Trilogy’ it is not imperative that the reader familiarise themselves with the previous volume to be fully involved; this is a stand-alone work that functions both as a commendable, if flawed, exercise in terror and as a fascinating continuation of the author’s previously established themes he used in ‘The Pines’.
A classically structured horror novel that this reviewer admired and savoured for the bulk of its narrative run but did not feel fully invested in the characters – Kit, Stella, Steve, Perry, Tully – or cared very much for their predicament. This is a literary case of style over substance for the most part. There are scares here but their resonance is muted somewhat by the pervading and ever present gloom that Dunbar relentlessly imbues throughout the text, there’s a scarcity of humour and a predictable use of heavy-handed metaphor and symbolism as exemplified in particular by the hurricane that creeps upon the town towards the novel’s conclusion but taken as a whole it’s an atmospheric twist on the ‘monster-that comes-to-town’ archetype of storytelling.
Order The Shore right here.