January 25, 2011

Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism By David Nickle Review

By David Nickle
Publisher ChiZine Publications
ISBN: 978-1926851112
Review by Jim Cherry
Review posted 1/25/2011

I’m not the best judge of horror, but I’ve read Lovecraft, Poe, King, and good writing is good writing. Good writing carries over to a book regardless of genre. And there’s plenty of good writing in David Nickle’s “Eutopia.”

“Eutopia” is set in the early 20th century and explores the world of American utopian movements, and the almost instantly corruptible science of Eugenics, how easily our desires for a utopian society can be exploited and corrupted no matter how idealistic the original intent.

The story is told from the point of view of two protagonists. The first is Dr. Andrew Waggoner a negro doctor in the frontier town of Eliada, Colorado in 1911. Eliada is a town set up by idealistic and charismatic leader Garrison Harper, a city that he’s built out of the wilderness on the principles of Compassion, Community, and Hygiene. As we meet Waggoner he’s about to be lynched by the local Ku Klux Klan. But first they hang a mysterious figure known as “Mr. Juke” for the rape and murder of a young woman. As Juke is being hanged, Waggoner has a vision of Juke either being a monster or beautiful. Just as the Klan is about to lynch Waggoner he’s rescued by Sam Green, one of the Pinkerton men hired by Harper. As Waggoner recuperates in Eliada’s hospital he learns “Mr. Juke” had survived hanging, although Waggoner doesn’t see how that is possible. But there isn’t time for Waggoner to investigate as a plot is discovered that the Klan wants to finish their job on Dr. Waggoner.

The second protagonist is Jason Thistledown, a lad of sixteen whose mother has died of disease. He discovers the rest of the town has been killed by the disease and, he’s the sole survivor. As Jason waits out the winter on the farm and is unsure about what to do with his mother’s body his previously unknown Aunt Germaine appears. Aunt Germaine is on her way to Eliada having recently been in New York gathering Eugenics information in prisons. After Jason and Aunt Germaine arrive in Eliada her motives for bringing Jason there become suspect as she allows Jason to be put overnight in “quarantine” with “Mr. Juke” and the secret that town harbors reveals itself and spreads throughout the populace.

At first I had a difficult time figuring out what, if any genre “Eutopia” fell into. Was it going to be a novel with a science fiction twist? Steampunk? Or something else entirely? Nickle takes his time setting everything up, and soon, “Eutopia” revealed itself to be of the horror genre. Nickle lets the novel reveal itself through the characters and the events that befall them. The narrative moves with a Lovecraftian twist, a little Greek mythology and hillbilly lore thrown in. Nickle lays out these strings and neatly weaves them into the thread of his story and keeps the tension going and the reader wanting to see what will happen next. Set in the early 20th century, Nickle has the voice of the people and the manner of the times down.

The horror is more implicit than explicit, there’s no big ’reveal’ scene where a monstrous nightmare vision is thrown at the reader for shock or a visceral reaction. Nickle sets the tone at early 20th century creepy. The tone is more of a pins under your skin feeling, or the feeling of a spider walking across your hand, that keeps you in a state of ecstatic uncomfortableness. The closer I got towards the end, the more it kept me reading to see how this could possibly be resolved. What higher praise or expectations can you have for a book?

“Eutopia” will be released by ChiZine Publications on May 3rd, 2011.

Jim Cherry is the author of The Last Stage