Wistwood book review

Author Jonathan Kieran shares his writing influences and what it was like to publish a supernatural thriller, while the world fights a real unseen force.

My new supernatural thriller, Wistwood, is a dark novel that enters slightly new territory for me, in terms of genre exploration and its application within the framework of a long-form narrative. A lot of people have asked me what spurred this foray into the realm of horror, and it’s a fair question, to say the least. 

My past output has been eclectic: I have published poetic verse, satirical novels, scathing cultural commentary, and fantasy epics. These reflect the diversity of my interests, which are pretty expansive, but at the same time razor-focused. In many ways, however, that eclecticism is a cipher: there’s a thread common to all of my works and pursuits, and several detectable motifs permeate the entire body of work I’ve produced thus far.

Chiefly, I’m fascinated by our collective human anxiety regarding unseen forces—natural or potentially supernatural—that remain ever beyond our control. Equally intriguing to me are the sometimes frightening questions we all entertain about our origins, and about what our ultimate destiny (or destinies) might be. These existential themes crop-up constantly in little storms of light and shadow throughout my works, and now they build to something of a thundercloud in Wistwood. In this new novel, my protagonist, Brask, is a conflicted, maybe even tormented, young guy. A “brickie” by trade, as the Australians would call him. But also an aspiring writer. He’s just 28. Life‘s been rough on him. Then, he has a sudden change of financial fortune and wants a second chance at things, a fresh start, in this remote California wilderness town called Wistwood, away from the world’s noise and chaos. 

But if there’s anything that the great ancient myths (and even today’s world religions) hammer home, it’s that second chances always come at a cost. Sometimes the cost is economic. Sometimes the cost is emotional. And sometimes, the cost just might be infinite ruin. In Brask’s case, his search for a second chance finds him caught in the middle of supernatural forces he could never have imagined to exist. He’s not a believer in anything. And yet he’s trapped in this place, in the seemingly idyllic town of Wistwood, for a reason. He learns, along with a number of other haunting characters, that the deadliest secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.

If pressed, I’d have to say that the novel is very much about how distressed we humans can be when confronted with the fact that the universe is out of our control, in addition to much of our daily lives. There are mightier things than we in the hidden spheres of the cosmos, just as there exist mundane terrors all about us in society: murders; natural disasters; poverty; war; environmental neglect; personal betrayals, etc. In Wistwood, these existential nightmares—the natural and the supernatural—collide in one young man’s life, and he has to find a way out or pay an unthinkable price.

I certainly hadn’t foreseen the publication of Wistwood during the fury of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the manner in which this unseen predator, if you will, emerged and then crept-up to overwhelm us so swiftly, turning our often sunny lives upside-down, is certainly relatable to the way in which Brask is swept into the terrifying forces at work in the charming little village of Wistwood. I think, also, that the novel gives expression to a curious cultural shift in the way that everyday people are processing various anxieties in the contemporary world. 

Namely, humans are building new little worlds of their own, via social media, for example. People are creating little fiefdoms and communities with themselves at the center—places that are both real and illusory, but over which they feel they have some element of control. I completely understand the impulse, but do we really gain control by utilizing these avenues … or are we sometimes simply mirroring the frustrations and follies of vengeful gods and other mighty Powers that may lurk on the outskirts of our knowledge?

My greatest literary influences—Cormac McArthy, E.M. Forster, Apuleius, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and even the beloved Terry Pratchett—all poked regularly at the hornet’s nest of such mysteries, each in his or her own way.  Yet, in spite of their curiosities and adventures, they did not ultimately underestimate people. I am careful not to do that, either. It’s a terrible mistake, in my opinion, to dismiss humanity outright in a cynical way and diminish what we are still capable of achieving under duress, for better or for worse. 

People can still surprise us in wonderful ways. Our species has proved this time and again over the centuries, mostly in moments that will never be told or remembered. But the effects of humans rising to their various challenges, great and small, go forward in time. The ramifications are still felt, I believe. And that does give one a certain amount of hope. And for all of its rampant, disturbing horror, Wistwood preserves an ample amount of that hope, as well. With a bit of luck, readers will recognize this theme of basic human redemption along the rough and perilous road taken by my novel and its denizens.

Jonathan Kieran – May 2020

Wistwood book blast

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