DISCLOSURE: I received a copy from the author, in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own.
Beneath the surface was a subtle and malignant threat that was haunting and potentially catastrophic.
Going into Matthew Brockmeyer’s Kind Nepenthe, I only had a vague sense of expectation. As with most stories, that’s usually best. Within the first thirty pages, he’d achieved the nearly unachievable: he’d gotten a firm grip on his characters, in ways which were admirable and binding. In the hands of the average wordslinger, such a feat might feel strained, even contrived; inexplicably, he gave the impression of breezing through his prose, lending a wholly natural feel to everything. And on a subconscious level, I needed him to expand on what he had; however, I could have never predicted the literary spell he would weave. He cast it over me like a net.
Some of the greatest stories emphasize tone, mood, and perhaps equally, place. In such stories, locale becomes not just a pivotal character, but an invisible force. You get that here in spades. Like peeling away myriad layers of an onion, Brockmeyer fundamentally took the foundation of his setting, and built upon that development.
Mystifying me further was the realization that although I’d thought I knew that world (had, in fact, described it as one “we know all too well,”) I wasn’t familiar with it at all. Not really. It wasn’t etched in stone, but rather fluid; constantly in flux, changing with supply and demand. The author wasn’t interested in superficialities. It was, and in a lot of ways still is, a misunderstood world.
Incidentally, I suspect that Kind Nepenthe was partially inspired by the passing of Proposition 64, circa November, 2016.
Furthermore, he made me care about the characters, gradually and firmly. Especially Rebecca and Megan–the former was dealt a nasty deck of cards, and despite those situations and those that followed, she tried hard to give herself and her daughter a better life; and Megan, because she was an adorable, precocious five year old; because she was disturbed.
Time lapsed. A revelation hit me, which was staggering and which I should have anticipated, but somehow didn’t: the development of Humboldt County (synonymous with California’s emerald triangle,) was more than it appeared. He was communicating something obviously important to him: the preservation of our environment, on an ecological scale.
That hit me hard.
His prose didn’t just flow, it was simplistic and beautiful, endearing despite the story’s dark subject matter.
It was creepy, too (feel its malicious intent. Yet its strengths weren’t only in the creep factor (though there were plenty,) or in recurring themes or the fleshing out of characters. They were those things, but Brockmeyer’s tale was simultaneously suspenseful. Harrowing.
Every paragraph amplified the mounting pressure, lending additional mysteriousness, without overwhelming the reader. I felt everything converging, and vaguely envisioned a looming catastrophe. In those moments, though, it felt almost subdued. Subtle. He was intentionally holding back, and for me, that’s what really made the novel tick. That’s the beauty of his creation.
I shouldn’t have experienced such pure joy. The frequent drug references and use (not strictly marijuana, either,) as well as excessive vulgarities and explicit sex are usually off-putting, but they worked because nothing was forced. He wrote with utmost honesty, and there’s nothing more admirable than that.
Soon afterward, things got real serious, very fast. Just when I thought he was apt to ratchet the tension and supernatural further, he held back. He knew exactly when to lay low, and when to speed up. At the same time, he brought the various key players together, in ways which were consistently organic, addictive, and unpredictable. For those reasons alone, I grew to respect him in a big way.
Most of the character’s weren’t very likeable. The realization was gradual and simultaneously abrupt. Throughout the novel, there were a few that I liked, or at the very least, a few whom I felt had some redeeming qualities. They actually recognized the need for change, and desired to effect said change. I think it was quite the feat, and an admirable one– to create that balance because on the one hand, he made me care about them; on the other side, I didn’t loathe individuals such as DJ or Coyote, but their actions were beyond reprehensible.
In the end, this was a complicated story with a lot of heart. Like a bad car crash, there was a sense of what the aftermath might be, but I couldn’t look away. I wanted to look away, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. The culmination was one that I’ve come to genuinely respect lately, and that which some of the best stories in literature possess: an <b>earned</b> ending.
Reminiscent of King’s The Shining (with the tone and mood of Kubrick’s cinematic invention,) as well as The Exorcist, and Straub’s Ghost Story, Brockmeyer achieved something different here. I’d never read anything quite like it. Essentially, it was the story that I wanted Ghost Story to be.
The highest recommendation!