by Naben Ruthnum
I wish I could say that I enjoyed this short novella more than I did. It's published by Undertow, usually a pretty sure indication of top notch, literary fantasy. The subject matter seemed promising: Louise, a devoted wife, dedicates herself to caring for her philandering husband, Edward Wilks, a man afflicted by a strange disease that is slowly rotting his body away. Burdened by insurmountable debts, she aids him in fleeing early 1900s New York, to his childhood home in Buffalo, where, presumably, she will care for him until his death.
The blurb cites David Cronenberg and Clive Barker, among others, as influences, and indeed with the disease's origins in Edwards sexual promiscuity, there are echoes of films like Rabid and Shivers. Specific descriptive passages in the story call to mind scenes from The Fly, particularly those depicting the latter stages of Seth Brundle's decay. There are echoes too, in the suggestions of transgressive sexual behaviour, of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, and Ruthnum's carefully constructed sentences evoke the writers of an older generation, particularly those Edwardian authors whose work helped shape what we think of as the 'horror genre'.
There's something Kafkaesque too, in Edward's slow and inevitable degeneration, and in Louise's stoic acceptance of his fate and her willingness to stick by him. But, despite an unexpected transformation toward the end, and the revelation of the true source of the disease, the story feels peculiarly enervating, as lacking in vigour as Edward himself. At those moments when the reader should be recoiling in horror and revulsion at descriptions of Edward's physical deterioration, I found myself more preoccupied with Ruhtnum's mannered prose. There's little in the way of tension or excitement; instead the story is suffused with a weighty dreariness. Maybe this was the intention, to conjure a morbid sense of stasis and introspection, but ultimately I found myself wanting to hurry on towards the end if only to escape that sense of lifelessness.
At best, the novella at 88 pages, doesn't overstay its welcome. But then, given its longueurs, it might have worked better at half the length and been more at home in the pages of Undertow's semi-regular journal of disturbing fiction, Weird Horror.