Michael Koryta is amazing. Slippery but amazing. Just when you think you have him pegged with a classification, he turns things around and upside down on you. I’m talking about plots, of course; if you are expecting a great, tightly written work that will haunt you for weeks and months, and longer, you will not be disappointed or surprised in the slightest. Just don’t plan to anticipate what is going to happen in any of his books --- particularly in his latest --- from first page to last. You’ll lose that bet.
Just to show you how far off I was about THE CYPRESS HOUSE, I initially thought I would be disappointed. Koryta’s previous novel, the chilling and unforgettable SO COLD THE RIVER, involved, among many other things, an old hotel, a ghost train and a tornado. When I picked up and started reading his new one, what did I encounter but 1) a train, 2) a hurricane, and 3) a down-on-its-heels guest house. Oh, and a totally different book, which I am already shortlisting for my year’s best.
THE CYPRESS HOUSE is set in Florida, smack in the middle of the Depression, and follows World War I veteran Arlen Wagner and 19-year-old Paul Brickhill, who are riding together on a train, following a promise of employment and sorely needed money. Arlen, a survivor of the Battle of Belleau Wood, has the strange and sad ability to see death coming --- and he sees just that for those riding the train. His warning is laughed away when he tells his fellow riders, who continue on to their final destiny, except for Paul, who believes Arlen and casts his fate with him. The two of them subsequently accept a ride from a stranger, a decision that leads them to the Cypress House, an all-but-deserted boardinghouse in Corridor County on Florida’s Gulf Coast, run by an enigmatic, complicated woman named Rebecca Cary, who is burdened with secrets and guilt.
Arlen and Paul almost immediately run afoul of the local law, an institution that is corrupt from the top down and is directly responsible for the difficulties that Rebecca is experiencing. Arlen wants to put as much distance between himself and Corridor County as he can, and as quickly as possible, but a number of factors prevent this. Chief among them are a hurricane that nearly devastates the Cypress House, and Paul, who almost instantly falls in love with the older Rebecca. Remaining in the area, however, puts both men on another collision course with local law enforcement, and also with each other, as a triangle forms among Paul, Rebecca and Arlen, one with edges so sharp that all three of them will be cut in one way or another. Arlen has not lost his ability to foresee death, and if the men stay in Corridor County, he predicts not only Paul’s death, but also his own.
THE CYPRESS HOUSE evokes a bygone era that is closer to our own than we might wish to acknowledge, so that it is by turns a metaphor, a character study, and, at heart, a thriller that is understated in form but that causes the pulse to race incrementally, a story with no good and proper place to stop reading until the conclusion. It is one of those novels that from the beginning is almost certain to end badly; the only issue is the degree of such. For Koryta, it continues a string of amazing works, each different from his previous efforts, which started with his debut, TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE, and shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
But don’t take it from me. Prolific author Dean Koontz has this to say about the book: "THE CYPRESS HOUSE is a unique and entertaining blend of noir and paranormal suspense, with a tightly controlled supernatural thread as believable as the gunplay. Mr. Koryta is at the start of what will surely be a great career. He's now on my must-read list."
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011