August’s Eyes (review)

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Rating: 4/5 stars

I received an advanced e-copy from NetGalley and the publisher, Flame Tree Press, in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own.

Since the publication of Blood and Rain in 2015, Glenn Rolfe has not stopped. Like a man on edge or a character possessed, Rolfe refuses to let anything deter him from giving life to some of our most dreaded fears. His passion for the bizarre and the macabre (spanning the gamut are werewolves, serial killers, demonic possession, vampires, hauntings and more,) are seemingly bottomless. What’s more, his brand of storytelling isn’t one-dimensional, albeit dark, very disturbing, and unequivocally adult-themed. What he delivers isn’t your typical horror. Instead, he presents common clichés and spins them on their tops, and then pens narratives that only he can. But despite their bleakness, there’s inevitably light. There is hope, even for the damned. Maybe especially for the damned. He writes with heart and soul, and I think that’s what I admire most about his work.

Similar to his local counterpart, Stephen King, Rolfe’s stories are often set in small Maine towns. They also tend to be coming-of-age tales set in the 80s and 90s, with a palpable nostalgic feel, whose primary focus are children.

“What makes you think he gets to pick one?” August, a tall kid with a clawed hand, asked. His hollow eyes matched the straight black hair that touched his funny shoulders. Johnny thought it looked like he was wearing shoulder pads made of baby skulls beneath his faded blue Superman t-shirt. Johnny didn’t like that August’s shoulders made him think of baby skulls, but he thought that was August’s fault. Somehow. And those damn eyes. Just two black holes..

From the initial sentence, the author made the overall mood and tone of Spears Corner clear. Over time, he painted images of a town almost reliant on deception, ambition, greed and angst. Spears Corner was complex and secretive. It felt, in a lot of ways, like my hometown, all of which made it scarier and more relatable.

True to life, there were pockets within August’s Eyes that brazenly defied explanation. Sometimes spiritual, often psychological, the intricate tale spun by Rolfe felt seamless, horrific, and was, in turn, downright magnetic. Regardless of the unexplained, those pockets were primarily rooted in trauma, yet they were also mysterious. Those scenes were the epitome of creativity, fascination, and originality. The entire novel was a lot of fun, but Graveyard Land, in particular, was pure delight.

“Dreams are a gateway to the spirit world,” the doc said. “The shaman I mentioned, he delved into places beyond our realm. Places we are not meant to tread. Not the way he intended, at least.”

The spirit world played a significant role, though the reader and characters didn’t unearth those truths until much later. In fact, I shudder to think how different things might’ve turned out if not for a certain Passamaquoddy man. August’s Eyes was a much stronger work because of the Indigenous mythology, which gave it some really nice fantastical elements. They were compelling on their own, but they helped deepen the mystery and profoundly strengthened the work as a whole. The Native elements were really refreshing and I wouldn’t want August’s Eyes without them. I can’t see it any other way. More impressive yet, the character, Dr. Rik Soctomah, wasn’t just there to aid John’s journey. His purposes were numerous. His character was fully realized.…

I loved the believability of these characters and the fact that they’re vulnerable and deeply flawed. There were times I cheered them on; grieved with them, sympathized with their suffering. There were times that I genuinely empathized. There was one emotionally brutal scene when I was SHOCKED by John’s actions. I remember feeling very angry. I really felt the sense of loss and betrayal. And as much as I loved John, Sarah, and Dr. Soctomah, I adored Pat even more. He’s one of those characters with instant likability, as though etched from the fabric of real life. I can’t begin to convey my adoration for Pat. Or how much I wish he was real. We all need a friend like Pat.

It was true, Spears Corner was a shiny, happy, American flag-flying town on the outside. Pot luck dinners at the local churches every weekend, yard sales by the dozens, and as much school pride as any of the football-loving Texas towns of the South, but beneath it all was an oozing river of deceit, jealousy, and outright hatred between the haves and have-nots.

However, there were a few things Rolfe could’ve handled better. The ending, for one. It was too easy, too neatly wrapped up. Given everything that came before, particularly the vile nature of the villain, I was expecting further complexities. Which isn’t to imply a lack of escalation, but I was anticipating something grand. Diabolical. I really wish the antagonist had been three-dimensional, as opposed to your typical serial killer dossier. Interestingly enough, Rolfe was inspired by John Wayne Gacy, the prolific serial murderer commonly known as the “Killer Clown,” in suburban Chicago, circa 1970s. With that in mind, I’d hoped for a more diverse creation, someone I could relate to on some level. Even an abstract one. I wanted more gray and less black and white. My third and final critique centers around the mythology of Graveyard Land. More than anything, I wanted–maybe needed– to know how it became a reality. Its origin, the role of the shaman and everything pertinent. It was such a cool and creative pocket, entrenched in Passamaquoddy lore, but knowing those big details piqued my curiosity about the small ones.

Throughout this incredible experience, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Window
(the only other book I’ve read by Glenn Rolfe,) and I marveled at how far he’s come in only three years. His prose was more refined, the concepts felt fresh and inviting; the storytelling flowed with ease, like ink streaming across the page; the wording was more precise; the primary characters were fully realized.

Highly addictive, delightfully strange, creepy as hell and exceptionally written. Plausibly Rolfe’s finest yet.

*A note regarding possible trigger warnings: they include cruelty to children and rape. Although they were present and gut- wrenching, it was never gratuitous. The author should be commended for that. Those horrible things happened, but they were never given specific details. They were only mentioned, and that’s an excellent example of “Show, Don’t Tell” being the exception to the rule.*

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