After Cold Mountain, his critically and commercially beloved 1997 debut, Charles Frazier tried to conjure the same historical magic in his follow-up, Thirteen Moons. But, the second time around, written not as a first-time novelist but as a National Book Award winner with an eight million dollar advance, Frazier’s lush, swooning style failed to enchant readers the way it once did. Now, in Nightwoods, his third novel, he leaves the 19th century behind, and compresses his vision into a brutal, gorgeously cinematic 260-page thriller, set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, amidst bootleggers, raccoon hunters, drug-addled police officers, and divinely-inspired, knife-wielding madmen. In the midst of all this, one woman struggles to admit love into her life, and, at the same time, to keep evil from eating her alive.
In every regard, Nightwoods is Frazier’s fiercest and darkest work. The violence is less glamorous and more sickening than in Cold Mountain’s sweeping battle scenes and stylized shootouts, with suffering now far outweighing glory. Nightwoods is so much shorter than Frazier’s previous novels not only because it’s tighter and more intimate, forgoing the epic grandeur that he once dredged so fruitfully from the Civil War, but also because some elemental force, an incarnation of death, perhaps, or simply silence, refuses to let it go on any longer than it does. The pressures not only within but somehow on the novel feel incredibly intense, like something malignant is crushing it down.
The story begins with Luce, a young woman who’s all too happy to earn a modest stipend as caretaker of a disused Lodge on the far edge of a lake outside of town. Living here alone, with only late night radio (“Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville”) and a few elderly neighbors for company, she cultivates a hard resistance to human closeness as carefully as the few hearty vegetables that sustain her.
These years of guarded tranquility, which began after she was casually raped by her high school teacher, come to an abrupt end when her murdered sister’s twin children appear on her doorstep. Mute, sullen, and prone to killing roosters and starting fires, the boy and girl usher a gust of ghostly wind into the Lodge, as if the door, once opened to admit them, can never again be closed. It’s clear, from the moment they arrive, that Luce will have to journey through some version of hell in order to save them, even as she reminds herself that her duty is only to provide shelter, not love. We never know for certain if the children are victims of evil, or agents of it, and the way that Frazier follows through the implications of this dangerous uncertainty is one of his greatest novelistic feats. Much more than helpless orphans, on the one hand, and more than stock horror story demon-children on the other, the twins, taken together as a unit, are a distinctly uncanny presence. They are capable of fighting like snakes, “real cold, like they were not even very angry at each other, just acting under some shared compulsion,” and yet they also share moments of true tenderness and vulnerability, when they cannot disguise how desperate for mothering they are, and Luce begins to waver in her resolve not to love them.
When their father (and their mother’s killer) shows up in town, chasing money that he believes they have, the novel jolts even further from its hushed opening, flaring up into a showdown thriller, more than a little reminiscent of the film The Night of the Hunter. Indeed, the father, Bud, “a handsome man, at least in the retrograde style of the expired southern fifties,” is a campy, gleefully rendered stand-in for Hunter’s Robert Mitchum. Obsessed with “Christ’s wounds and Christ’s blood… the dark artery offering that covered the globe,” Bud perfectly embodies the same union of religious mania and compulsive sadism that made Mitchum’s Gospel-preaching hunter such an indelible bogeyman. The one difference, of course, is that the hunted children here are not the helpless innocents they were in the film: Frazier gets us to fear for the children, but also to fear them, never letting us forget that they are the progeny of the very murderer who has come to hunt them down. This extra variable only compounds the intensity of the hunt.
Despite Nightwoods’ markedly grimmer tone, however, Frazier retains his giant crowd-pleasing appeal, and this works both for and against him. There is an undeniable greatness to his prose and the way he carves terror and romance out of the magisterial Carolina landscape, building toward an intentionally unsubtle climax, and yet some saccharine aftertaste lurks even in the novel’s roughest patches: there is always the suspicion that he’s gone too far out of his way to please, crafting a sort of backwoods-bloodbath-lite for urbanites who know nothing of this world except a few tired clichés, and are game only for a brief guided tour. As such, the prose veers too often into a nostalgic, aphoristic tone, seemingly meant to convey hard-earned country wisdom, like “ …violence is best accomplished spur-of-the-moment. Let it happen out of nowhere… like there’s no past and no future, nothing but the red right now…” These lines are always beautiful, and often ring true, but, over time, they start to seem either demeaning toward the rural reality they come from, or else condescending toward the urban readership they will doubtlessly reach. In short, Nightwoods is not only grippingly cinematic, it’s also unabashedly movie-ready, no less so than Cold Mountain was.
But none of this obscures the pleasure of reading such a scary and handsomely pared-down novel. At the very center of the woods is a “black hole filled with black water,” which “pulled at you. You stand up to it, or you go down.” As the action hurdles along toward its inevitable bloody conclusion, the magnetic attraction of this black hole grows so strong that it overwhelms or simply devours any lingering suspicions of the confectionary hollowness under Frazier’s perfectly dressed scenes. After this, I could do nothing but enjoy the accelerating ride into and finally through the dark. Almost as much, I’m sure, as I’ll enjoy the movie when it comes out.