Amber Benson and Christopher Golden,
The Seven Whistlers
(Subterranean Press, 2006)

The eerie short novel The Seven Whistlers will evoke more than a tang of familiarity for New Englanders. The story's events take place amidst a small-town Vermont backdrop, deftly elucidated with drafty homes, rusty woods, antique shops, and the largely reticent local denizens who populate them. Throughout the book, I found myself believing that phlegmatic protagonist Rose Kerrigan must certainly have been modeled on someone I've brushed shoulders with on the street in rural Massachusetts.

In conjunction with its practical, stark prose, the book's inherently mundane characters and setting set it apart from the offerings of garden-variety de Lint wannabes, whose flights of overwrought language can belie their attempts to cleanly interject elements of the fantastic into otherwise faithful portrayals of reality. Benson and Golden, the novel's authors, shrug off the seductive baggage of poetic rococo in favor of a low-level, hackle-raising atmospheric menace, which serves to heighten the impact of the otherworldly happenings that form the center of the story.

The plot hinges on the appearance of the Whistlers, a pack of strange and terrible demon-dogs that, according to Celtic lore, presage the Apocalypse. They have come to Vermont in search of something rightfully belonging to them, and if they do not get their due, the Hitchcockian ugliness and misfortune already infecting the town will escalate into destruction beyond contemplation. Typical local girl Rose and her Guinness-swilling, underemployed buddies appear to be the only hope of halting the dread events on the horizon. Happily, this is no blueberries and cow-pies version of Charmed. Rose has no book of spells or witchy ancestresses, and her cohorts are a cook, a carpenter, and an antique dealer, nothing more. Nonetheless, Rose discovers that skeletons in her family's closet guard the secret to understanding the mysterious threat.

The book's brevity did leave me feeling that some events were dropped without being explored or integrated adequately, most notably the plight of the silver stag, whose cameo seems too powerful a telling to be abandoned so unceremoniously. However, the flashes of dead-on descriptive detail, the spare prose and the tight-strung tension of the plot sent me racing through the pages, and I was sorry when the tale wound to a close too soon, like the bitter dregs of a tasty brew. I was reminded by turns of Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill, and of Neil Gaiman's early work. At times, the book seemed almost to read like a screenplay, with its finely-drawn scenery and well-timed moments of comedic relief. Ultimately, this is a quick, intriguing, satisfyingly creepy read, refreshingly free of emo sap. Fans of dark, post-modern fantasy should find it to be a tasty morsel, though it won't sustain you through a transatlantic flight.

[Tiffany Matthews]