Written by: James Keen
“Dread had become an old companion.” – Robert Dunbar. ‘The Streets.’
‘The Streets’ arrived on shelves towards the end of last year and is the long awaited finale to a tale the author began during the late 1980’s, and while Dunbar has narrative threads and contingent thematic concerns to address in this final volume, it’s a body of text that proves to be – much like its previous installments – a carefully wrought work that can be doubly appreciated; it functions perfectly well as a stand-alone novel and a conclusion to his own homage to an urban legend. While certain fictional personalities from the ‘The Pines‘ and ‘The Shore‘ make appearances in this resolution to Dunbar’s Jersey Devil chronicle, they are – by and large – introduced in a fashion that should appeal to those who have perhaps not yet read the preceding books.
This time around the bulk of the drama takes place in a steadily decaying urban environment and focusses primarily on a privately funded hospital, the Whitman Youth Study Center which is described as being “modern in an obsolete way”. This facility is dedicated to the supposed rehabilitation of wayward youth in the county – of which there appears to be an alarming preponderance. Dunbar’s cast of characters within, both staff and patients, are effectively delineated and as this already bleak tale inevitably starts to twist towards the sinister, the author subtly adds an intriguing nuance to his fictional players and entwines back story without relying on heavy-handed exposition. Aside from a couple of obvious villainous quirks demonstrated by the primary antagonist (a character who, on occasion, finds its dramatic expression in demonstrating a literary quality that is plainly rather ‘arch’; one that calls to mind the speech patterns of Richard O’Brien’s evil cypher in the Alex Proyas movie, ‘Dark City‘) this is largely a case of a narrative that is cleverly designed to reveal its fundamental purpose in the chariest and measured increments. With a lesser skilled writer this kind of literary gambit can often subsequently prove to become irritating and overly manipulative, ultimately ruining the readers immersion in the text. That is certainly not the case here.
The thematic concerns of both of the previous tomes are echoed here and agreeably expanded upon, though the sub-text here is arguably less opaque. Following an epigram by the American dramatist Edward Albee, the author then chooses to lead off his narrative proper with a quote by the noted Belgian essayist Marguerite Yourcenar, whose Humanist ideals and perspective appears to have had an enormous influence on all three of Dunbar’s Jersey Devil- centered tales, though much like the fabled monster’s hindmost appendage, the underlying message is all the more pointed here, narratively speaking. Because of this approach, when the book’s supernatural elements do occur and the traditional tropes associated with the horror genre are indulged, Dunbar’s appropriates those story constituents in a manner that repeatedly queries reader interpretation and intellectual response in much the same way that some of Clive Barker’s earliest literary achievements have managed (the novel Cabal, being a particularly germane antecedent). The horrific and violent moments in the book are brutal and suitably unnerving, but these episodes are tempered by the writer’s contention that change is “not evil, but wild” and they are used to underscore an important pattern to the text when viewed as a whole; humanity’s fear of -and blind reaction to- the inexplicable often results in an appallingly irrational and violent opposition, negating any possibility of a reasoned and well-mannered debate.
If there are faults with the novel then it would be that it is very often an unrelentingly grim reading experience, with moments of levity that are perhaps too few in number. There are too, odd moments where certain lines of dialogue almost seem to ooze with bathos, threatening to undermine Dunbar’s serious narrative concerns. That said, the author’s gift for depicting imagery that resonates powerfully, to wit,“Pine trees twitched, casting wild shadows, while autumn leaves clawed across the lawn”, and expertly setting an almost palpable mood – “far off, a freight train muttered, the sound rotten with defeat.” is evident throughout this thought-provoking novel. Each book in succession has improved upon the last and taken as a whole, Dunbar’s trilogy is a remarkable example of a thoughtful and talented writer engaged in pushing the boundaries of the genre, challenging reader expectation and still managing to be thoroughly entertaining to boot.