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A Review of: The Town That Forgot How To Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey

CENTRAL QUESTION: Can epic horror convey social and economic insight, even as it scares our pants off?

A Review of: The Town That Forgot How To Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey

John Domini
20 Snaps

In overview, Kenneth Harvey’s first American publication (following thirteen books in Canada) seems pure horror. A cranky and ingrown community named Bareneed suffers visitations from the dead, the corpses fresh even when centuries old, bobbing up out of the Newfoundland codfish lanes that used to provide the town’s income.

But then the eerie bleeds into the surreal as locals literally forget how to breathe. A few die, while others wind up on respirators, their eyes black and vacant. Authorities are mystified.

The trouble began when the cod fishery closed down a few years earlier and the community lost a piece of its soul, developing a need—a bare need—for “visions… manifested as a… coping mechanism.” But the secondhand vitality of conjuring spirits, in this town, must compete with the canned visions of the twenty-first century, the electronic storytelling of TV and the internet. Thus Harvey’s drama comes to embody a classic theme, the search for a locus of spirit in a world dominated by the machine. In this way, Town achieves more than hair-raising thrills.

A girl named Robin is lured into danger by a friend with green skin and mud between her teeth. Tommy the village idiot draws pictures that predict the future, Claudia the pretty young widow cuts herself with a kitchen knife and changes into a bloodthirsty dog, and the fascinating old bat Eileen matches her psychic gift against that of an Army officer who strays from procedure. Any of these people could be called the protagonist, and each of their concerns figures significantly in the crisis. But while Harvey doesn’t rely on flat characters, and Robin’s estranged parents are just the sort of complicated city folk a Serious Novel is supposed to be about, his vision for this book has more to do with the communal than with the personal. Town is less about self-discovery than spectacle. Did I mention the tsunami?

The novel uses Newfoundland English to generate both laughter and shivers, while it seeks, unabashedly, to occupy the same narrative space as that of tall tales about fishing the Grand Banks. Harvey, a native to the region, cites the inspiration of his parents’ storytelling in the book’s acknowledgments, and his aesthetic emerges as a north-of-the-border variation on what Michael Chabon had in mind for Thrilling Tales and Enchanted Chamber. When this novel’s mystic crone Eileen sings an old chantey about a dying fisherman, she takes a pleasure Chabon would recognize in the song’s “plummeting tragedy,” its “affirmation of… grimness.”

While grimness may pervade horror, however, a narrative this long and complex must, at the least, hold out the possibility of more depth. Harvey’s gift to the genre may be his take on the convention of the plucky survivor, which in this case isn’t any single figure but the

whole of Bareneed. In helping to discover the source of the town’s extraordinary forgetfulness, and of its corporeal gifts from the sea, every citizen contributes to a re- vival of the flagging local spirits.

So prolix a narrative, perhaps inevitably, stumbles now and again into cliché and even prosaic explanation. More often, however, the affliction in Bareneed proves chilly as the touch of corpse- weed, and haunting as the trouble in Stephen King’s Salem or H. P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich. Harvey delivers the horror goods even as he reinvigorates a timeless insight: “It be da dyin’ belief in da fantastic dat cheats a person of dere colors.”

John Domini
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