"The Twilight Pariah" Book Review
Written by Jonathan Lees
Published by Tor Books
Written by Jeffrey Ford
2017, 176 pages, Fiction
Released on September 12th, 2017
The novella has had quite a resurgence lately and I am on board with popular consensus that it can be the perfect form for a jolting horror tale. Unfortunately, for Jeffrey Ford's fascinating yet flawed experiment with the form, The Twilight Pariah is too brief to truly express the horrors within.
Three high school friends, our narrator Henry, Maggie, and Russell, are becoming separated in life. They are attending different colleges, fostering different interests yet they all share an un-certain fate when they face an unexpected evil that may literally tear them apart.
Against the backdrop of crumbling mansion with a notorious past, young archeologist-in-training, Maggie, chooses to spend her last days of summer digging through "the heart of the past" and disturbing the night soil of the old Prewitt House. For those uninformed, like me, night soil is literally "antique shit turned to dirt" as Maggie explains.
To their surprise, deep in the doo-doo, a series of treasures are unveiled. A derringer pistol, a pipe with a broken stem, a bottle of Kind Nepenthe, and, of course, the skeleton of a baby that has horns growing from its skull. If it weren't for these meddling kids, the Twilight Pariah, a possessive demon-spirit-thingy, may have stayed away, out of sight... but what fun would that be?
You can't kill the dead. You've got to outsmart them.
This doesn't seem to be a problem for the rookie group of explorers who, after consulting with a local professor and seeking out individuals affected by the Pariah, tend to figure out the most archaic mysteries in a matter of moments. Had this story played out in a serial fashion like a season of Buffy, we might have appreciated Ford's playful attention to detail and the characters' Scooby-Doo snooping. Instead, a lot of the interactions feel rushed and stale. For example, in a supposedly tense moment when they are waiting for Pariah to appear, one character casually fires off, "Oh I just saw it up in the living room. I ran past it to get to the stairs. It's on its way." Really? It's all so matter-of-fact that it equates to less than the amount of terror they'd express if they encountered moth balls in the pocket of a thrift-shop jacket.
Considering there is a poignant subplot with our narrator's father that doesn't seem to ever resolve in a meaningful manner, I can't help but think Maggie might have been the more aggressive and entertaining narrator. When our inquisitive protagonists learn the background of the entity unleashed, the events that follow seem to lead towards a nail-biting excursion into madness, haunted history and the healing of a suffering soul, but it just doesn't read that way.
I've heard a lot of praise for Jeffrey Ford's collection A Natural History of Hell and his novels ranging from The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque and The Drowned Life, so I'm not taking this slight detour as a serious misstep. Ford is capable of great passages and intriguing ideas. There are definite nods to haunted tradition and grand tales of the macabre here yet The Twilight Pariah ends up a neutered horror adventure serial that never delivers the thrills, laughs or scares it promises.