If you see Dave Zeltserman, tell him he owes me a night’s sleep. Zeltersman is arguably best known for his fine works in the crime fiction genre, novels and short stories that are of such high quality that one can recommend them to friends without hesitation. But THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD is somewhat different from his previous titles. Of course there is the same care of wordcraft; in fact, he ratchets things up a notch or three. No, Zeltserman makes a shift from urban noir to subtle rural horror and psychological suspense. When one reads this book, one thinks of names like Ambrose Bierce, August Derleth, Manly Wade Wellman, and even W.W. Jacobs, at least topically. Zeltserman’s style, though, is all his own.
Jack Durkin is the caretaker of Lorne Field. Well on the downside of middle age, Jack is the representative of the ninth generation of Durkins who is tasked with keeping a large tract of land clear of what he calls Aukowies. An Aukowie is a monster that, if left to grow unchecked, could take over the entirety of the country within two weeks, and not nicely, either. Jack, as the eldest son of an eldest son, possesses the book and the contract that has governed the agreement between his family and the local town. The work is difficult, unrelenting and backbreaking. Think of clearing an area roughly the equivalent of two football fields of weeds that grow back each day, day in and day out, with the only respite occurring during the winter months. Such a job would give anyone a negative attitude, and most certainly Jack has one, even as he is single-mindedly driven to honor the contract to the letter.
The caretaker’s position has historically been an honored and revered one, but the terms --- a house for the caretaker near the field, and an $8,000 annual honorarium --- have not changed for over a century. And the original reason for the caretaking of the field has been lost on most citizens in the mists of time. There are still a few older people who hold Jack in high esteem, aware of what he does and why he does it, but most, including Jack’s wife and older son, have reached the conclusion that he is either insane or close to it. Lydia is sick of living in poverty and of her husband’s negative attitude. Lester, Jack’s older son, is an extremely reluctant heir apparent to the position, about which his friends tease and taunt him.
The tipping point occurs when Lydia’s friend has an idea that she believes will bring some much needed money into the family coffers and still permit Jack to fulfill what he sees as an honorable covenant. What occurs instead will change everything forever, at least for Jack and perhaps for everyone. He is either delusional or the protector of the world. There is, and will be, no middle ground.
THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD succeeds as a horror novel, a psychological thriller and a haunting parable, even in some ways that Zeltserman may not have intended. There are dark levels to this work, some of which are immediately evident and others of which reveal themselves only upon later reflection. I don’t know if the book will come to be regarded as a classic, either now or at some point in the future, but it deserves to be.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 26, 2010