Jonathan Reynolds‘ La Legende de McNeil (The Legend of McNeil) is the first book I read from Quebec publisher Les Six Brumes. It’s also the first story I’ve read by Reynolds and is the start of my French Quebec horror reading.
This novella steps in and out of weird territory with some Lovecraftian style rural wizardry (but on a more christian axis), and some unexplained phenomena, but ultimately is as much about the horrors people perpetrate on each other. Here’s the blurb (in translation):
It all started before old Henry McNeil’s death. He lived here, in that house. That and the barn are all that’s left of the farm. We want to forget what happened, but blood, that takes time to disappear.
The story is actually about Marie, told in 2 alternating time periods (a present in 2006, and past in 1996). As events in the past slowly unfold to some big traumatic event (this isn’t much of a spoiler, it felt repeatedly suggested), we learn about the repercussions of those events in the present. Present day Marie is divorced and dating, has a young daughter (Elisabeth), and not much connection to her old life. She’s keeping secrets from Elisabeth, and both of them have sinister dreams. Past Marie still hangs out with high school friends David and Marc (who collects horror on VHS). Marc ran into an old schoolmate, and that leads to adventure.
Things took a while to get going, with lots of background and world building. It felt very realistic, but I didn’t really feel like I had a handle on what was actually happening until about halfway through (arriving at the McNeil farm). There was probably too much foreshadowing and not enough actual dread, which might have been accomplished with a shorter introduction. It was worth pushing on, though I can understand some might not want to. Things picked up quickly from there, especially in the past timeline. The present day timeline served mostly to reveal information that would clarify events in the past in the immediately surrounding chapters, though it mostly hinted at possible answers instead of providing clear and definite answers. That’s not a problem for me, but I know is for some people.
I found the alternating structure difficult, as I mentioned earlier, because the chapters were so short that it often seemed liked nothing happened before switching to another timeline. Early on there were few characters in common between them, which added to the confusion. This is the first time in a while I had to make notes about who characters were in such a short story.
One of the things that struck me reading this story (and I’ll be reading more, so I can report back on the theory) when we finally learned about McNeil, was how well the Lovecraftian rural wizard would fit in with writing about the land in Quebec. I’m not too well read in folk horror, but that might be the closest analogue. It’s definitely less Weird, but realizing this expanded my sense of what was possible in the world, and I was able to imagine some horrible things that kept me reading. Some pretty horrible things happen in the story too (though I’m not sure if the fate of one character is ever stated).
Trigger warning: the story contains allusions (though not descriptions of, thankfully) to sexual violence.
Normally I wouldn’t bother to talk about format, but a weird trim size sometimes warrants it. This is a small book, only about 2.5″ x3″, but it’s also 143 pages. It’s physically the perfect pocket-book, easily slipping into front and back pockets, while still giving the sensation of reading a larger book with a normal-sized spine. Apparently the format is discontinued. I’m not sure if that’s a positive or not. Chapters that normally might only be one or two pages spread out over a several, but because the chapters were so short I regularly got the impression that nothing happened before switching timeline.
Ultimately I liked the story, though it wasn’t something that immediately grabbed me and compelled me to finish it. For those looking to dip into Quebec fantastique/horror this might be a good bet, as well as for fans of folk horror. The language isn’t too difficult either for those who aren’t the most comfortable reading in French.