Thomas Cook’s characters are often haunted, but they usually are forced to face, and sometimes resolve, the past without recourse to the supernatural. However, when supernatural elements begin to intrude in his latest novel, The Fate Of Katherine Carr, it seems as normal as anything else in the day-to-day life of George Gates.
Gates (and yes, the name carries connotations) was a travel writer, an adventurer who sought out the unusual places on his journeys. Unusual, and, in a sense haunted; early in his story he tells about the cliffs of Saipan, off which Japanese threw their children and leapt to their deaths rather than face the atrocities they expected from the invading Americans. Gage is haunted too, by the memory of his son, kidnapped as he waited for his father to pick him up on a rainy afternoon, and murdered by his kidnapper, who’d never been found. Haunted by the knowledge he had forgotten promising Teddy a ride if it rained, forgotten because he was wrapped in trying to find the right words to finish a line in his book.
Now Gates writes for the local paper in Winthrop, which appears to be in upstate New York, or maybe western Connecticut, and his traveling is limited to his now empty (haunted?) house, the newspaper, and O’Shea’s Tavern. There, one night, he meets Arlo McBride, retired state police missing persons investigator, and becomes interested in Katharine Carr, amateur poet, novice writer, who became a recluse after a vicious attack on her doorstep, and who later disappeared without a trace. That was twenty years ago. Soon Gates is reading Carr’s poems, and a story she wrote about a woman who disappears, taken away by a strange person named Maldrow, and his Chief, whose purposes might be evil, or might not.
It’s been noted that Cook’s stories unfold gradually, and the process has been compared to peeling the layers of an onion. His characters are often writers, people looking for the write word, the right way to express their feelings. In this novel, the layers of the onion are obvious, but so skillfully drawn that they become forgotten: Gates is telling the entire story to a Mr. Mayawati; apparently while traveling again in exotic places. Within the story, Gates has started writing an article about a young girl, Alice, dying of a disease which is aging her prematurely.
Gates winds up reading Katherine’s story to Alice (and yes, the name has connotations), stories within stories within stories, and those tales start to melt together, until the boundaries between what has happened and what hasn’t, between this world and the next, seem to disappear.
What makes it work, makes it compelling, is Cook’s prose. Although there are moments when he seems to be echoing Poe’s ‘Cask Of Amontillado’, and where the rhythms take on the a slightly more ornate, Lovecraftian feel, the reality is that the style is measured but straightforward, much of it, despite the rhythms of the gothic tale, told in simple language that suggests this form of travel is no stranger than any other. You might compare it to John Connolly, who early on borrowed the tropes of horror writing to remake his detective novels, but Cook is doing something different, merely extending slightly the reach of his usual concerns. The supernatural is a world of memory, of the dead and the past, and that has always been the territory Cook’s novels have explored. Katherine Carr is not a ghost story, but it is. Maldrow and the Chief are not real, but they are. In these ambiguities, Cook has created another small gem of a novel. He deserves a wider audience, but perhaps his work his too idiosyncratic, his books, while recognizably Cook’s, too different from each other. Or perhaps the audience isn’t as comfortable with being totally captured by ambiguity as they ought to be.
The Fate Of Katherine Carr is published by Quercus