The last couple of years have brought us some remarkable debuts in the genres of literary rural gothic/noir. These most notably have been Peter Farris (LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING) in 2012, and Wiley Cash (A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME) and Paul Lynch (RED SKY IN MORNING) in 2013. 2014 has barely started, yet we have a debut author and a work that certainly demonstrates the impressive chops to make readers of all literary genres sit up and take notice. That would be James Scott and THE KEPT; the prose, characters and plot will echo in your mind from first page to last, and beyond.
"Scott’s darkly poetic prose chills and compels, propelling the reader into a maelstrom that has the ring of truth filtered through a fever dream as Elspeth follows a course of revenge with Caleb eagerly in her wake, even as he learns that everything he has known and believed about himself has been wrong."
We meet Elspeth Howell in the winter of 1897 as she traverses cold and snowy miles across upstate New York. Her goal is an isolated, all-but-hidden farmhouse where she and her husband, Jorah, live with their five children. What she discovers at journey’s end is a house of horror, with all but one member of her family slaughtered. This unrelentingly grim vignette sets the tone of the book. Scott keeps the reader focused on Elspeth’s loss. She, at times, is permitted to look away as she walks among the bodies of those she loves; the reader is afforded no such luxury. The sole survivor of the massacre is 12-year-old Caleb. It is from his viewpoint that the tragedy is recorded, even as he is almost responsible for causing another. This knowledge, however, is not the sole revelation in the early goings.
It is (almost) immediately obvious that something is not right with Elspeth and Caleb, and that perhaps Elspeth’s peculiarities and actions in the past have provided the somewhat delayed catalyst for what has occurred. The two surviving members of the Howell family vow revenge and begin a difficult and worrisome trek that ultimately takes them to the small town of Watersbridge, a bit of the wild west in the upstate, as it were. The town holds memories and terrible danger for Elspeth, who has a remote history there, one that involves Caleb in his infancy. It is in Watersbridge that the full depth of Elspeth’s transgressions is revealed, as is the rough irony with which the slaughter of her family is shot through.
Scott’s darkly poetic prose chills and compels, propelling the reader into a maelstrom that has the ring of truth filtered through a fever dream as Elspeth follows a course of revenge with Caleb eagerly in her wake, even as he learns that everything he has known and believed about himself has been wrong. By book’s end, Elspeth and Caleb have achieved a measure of success in their quest, but at what cost? The conclusion may surprise you, but it is preordained in many ways.
Different sections of the book put me in the mind, atmospherically, of a number of modern classic works, from THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original). Please note: this novel is nothing like those titles. Scott has his own style that utilizes neither the verbosity of the former work nor the dark humor of the latter, instead relying on a grim but realistic world vision where sins wait for decades to be punished and forgiveness is an alien concept. Read THE KEPT and be prepared to add James Scott to your “must read” list of authors.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 31, 2014