John Langan Reviews Halcyon by Rio Youers
Halcyon, Rio Youers (St. Martin’s 9781250072412 $27.99, 384pp, hc) July 2018.
While Halcyon, Rio Youers’s new novel, is not a direct sequel to last year’s The Forgotten Girl, it shares the previous novel’s interest in psychic phenomena. Once again, Youers links psychic ability to a young woman, in this case, Edith Lovegrove, 10-year-old daughter of Martin and Laura, younger sister of 15-year-old Shirley. As the novel begins, Edith suffers what her parents take to be a variety of seizure, albeit, one in which she covers the walls of her room with cryptic writing. Since Youers has taken us inside Edith’s experience, we know that she has had a horrific vision of the aftermath of what appears to be some type of large-scale accident or attack. Shortly thereafter, the news reports a catastrophic act of domestic terrorism in nearby Buffalo, and Martin and Laura see in its details echoes of things Edith wrote on her wall. They find themselves considering the possibility that their younger daughter possesses a variety of psychic ability and decide to see whether they can locate someone to evaluate Edith’s potential power and teach her how use it. After being taken in by a couple who wish to make their daughter the subject of a reality TV show they intend to pitch, the Lovegroves connect with an older woman named Calm Dumas, who is possessed of actual psychic powers and who recognizes similar abilities in Edith. Calm instructs Edith in ways to live with her powers; in particular, she teaches Edith how to construct a kind of psychic safe space, a place in which she can shelter when her visions are especially traumatic. There’s an echo here of The Shining’s scene in which young Danny Torrance receives advice about his psychic abilities from Dick Halloran, the chef at the Overlook Hotel. This portion of the narrative occupies the first third of the novel, and Youers’s portrait of the family during it is one of the book’s strengths. Indeed, the title might apply to this period of the Lovegroves’ lives, when, despite the initial trauma of Edith’s vision (and the event it predicts), Calm Dumas’s intervention brings a measure of sense and structure to the family. The golden time comes to a brutal end, however, with the murder of Laura during a shooting at the school where she teaches. It’s another tragedy Edith has foreseen, but Martin understands the significance of her vision too late to prevent it.
In the aftermath of Laura’s death, the surviving members of the family are despondent. After months of mourning, Martin is approached by a man who tells him about Halcyon, a community that has been established on a small island in Lake Ontario. As the man describes it, the inhabitants of the island seek to live a simpler life, eschewing much of contemporary life, especially its reliance on electronic devices and its obsession with social media. Martin talks to his daughters about the place, and the three of them agree to give life on the island a try. Once there, they meet Valerie Kemp, Halcyon’s presiding authority. Middle-aged Valerie instructs the Lovegroves to call her Mother Moon. She presents the island to the Lovegroves as a place of refuge for people who have suffered losses similar to theirs, events which have revealed to them the hollowness of their existence. She espouses an idiosyncratic spirituality based in the idea of a journey to Glam Moon, an ethereal paradise, but she expresses no interest in forcing her beliefs on the Lovegroves. There is, though, much more to Mother Moon than she reveals to the island’s new residents. In occasional chapters, Youers has told us her history. It’s a tale of horror and abuse, in which as a young runaway Valerie Kemp was held captive in a small room above a restaurant by a group of men who only appeared to her dressed in assorted animal masks. These men inflicted all manner of torture upon her in the furtherance of a philosophy based in violence as a means to transcendental insight. Their depravities led her to enter a fantastic space, a pastoral landscape in which she exhibited extraordinary powers. Although she could not remain there, her experience of the place inspired her to plan and execute bloody vengeance upon and escape from her captors. Since that time, she has spent her days trying to find her way back to the place she calls Glam Moon. As she first came to the space as the result of extravagant harm, she has been behind an escalating series of destructive incidents, on the principle that a single large act of violence might be enough to re-open to her personal paradise and allow her to cross to and remain in Glam Moon. A species of psychic, herself, Mother Moon has the ability to impose her will on those she spends an extended period of time with, turning them into the vehicles of her plan. Her psychic powers draw strength from those who are suffering, so her intent is to use the massive agony caused by the acts she precipitates as a battery to power her return to Glam Moon. That they have not so far succeeded has not stopped her from repeated attempts. As the book’s principle antagonist, Mother Moon is an intriguing creation, not a villain seeking political power (such as Senator Dominic Lang in The Forgotten Girl), but the victim of a horrific, extended trauma whose response to it is to seek a permanent release from the life it has scarred, even as she becomes the source of new suffering for the victims she creates. In the name Glam Moon, there’s a whiff of the seventies, and of the cults that appeared in American life (i.e. Jim Jones) and culture (i.e. Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home). Yet Youers links his cult narrative with such contemporary concerns as mass violence and cycles of trauma.
Things in the novel begin to accelerate when Shirley, who was already in the midst of typical teenage disaffection before her mother’s murder, is taken under Mother Moon’s wing. Recognizing the depth of Shirley’s pain, the older woman plans to use her to carry out her next attack. In the process of grooming her, however, she learns of Edith’s powers. If there were a way, Mother Moon thinks, for her to combine her abilities with Edith’s at the moment Shirley follows through on the suicide attack Mother Moon is grooming her for, then surely she will finally be able to enter Glam Moon. In the meantime, Martin has come to feel that there is more to Mother Moon than she is letting on. He negotiates what he says will be a brief return to the mainland in order to tie up loose ends and to empty his bank account of the money he intends to donate to the island. The bribe succeeds; although he must leave Shirley and Edith on Halcyon. Now Youers tightens the narrative strands he has been braiding, as Martin’s quest to uncover the truth about Mother Moon leads him back to Calm Dumas, and then to a room above a restaurant in New Jersey where a young woman was brutalized into a visionary moment. In the meantime, Shirley is preparing to for her fatal mission, while Edith, her power revealed to Mother Moon, begins to understand what the woman is planning for her older sister, and in the absence of her father, must try to stop Mother Moon on her own. As Martin makes his way back to the island, a snowstorm descends, and in the wintry climax, there’s another echo of The Shining.
With Halcyon, Rio Youers brings together the interest in psychic phenomena that animates his novels, The Forgotten Girl and Westlake Soul, with the concern for small, sinister communities at the heart of his novel, Point Hollow. The result is a narrative about the ways in which we meet, struggle with, and seek to overcome the trials and tragedies that rush upon us. It’s about the ways in which damage can be internalized and perpetuated. It’s about family, about the saving bonds between spouses, fathers and daughters, sisters.
John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections of stories, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (2011). One of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, he served as a juror for its first three years. He lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.
This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.
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