Sometimes you just want a quick hit. A short novel you can read in one sitting and put down feeling wholly satisfied. For those moods, The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford was released this week and it completely delivers. Sparsely written but fully imagined, The Twilight Pariah is a movie on the page. Clever characters and a fast-paced story drive you from one scene to the next until you suddenly realize you've finished the book.
The novella opens with three college age friends settling into the start of an archeological dig. Archeologists in genre fiction have a knack for uncovering things which were better off buried. This is supposed to be an unambitious practice dig, a summer distraction for Maggie who is exploring her new major, but it is no different. She chose to stick her shovels into the fallen outhouse of an abandoned mansion in her upstate New York hometown. Creepy old mansions that have housed no one forever are treated like a backdrop to the colonial state childhoods of so many stories, but then someone goes too deep, in this case literally, and unearths why that mansion was left to rot in the first place.
Roped into this dig with Maggie are Henry and Russell, both back home for the summer from separate colleges. She instructs them on their secret night dig. (You didn’t think they had permits, did you?) Big shovels for the top layers, then trowels when things might start to get interesting, and finally brushes. At first they sift through a history of beer bottles, artifacts from generations of teenagers needing somewhere to hang out. But soon things begin to get interesting. They find a curious, half-empty bottle of an old patent medicine, then a silver-plated, pearl-handled, old derringer pistol. Henry is the lucky one. He’s working his brush past where they found the gun, swishing away, when he finds something bony. Actually, it is bones. Actually, it is the intact skeleton of an infant child. When the others climb down to see what he found, further brushing reveals it is definitely a human baby, except for the ridges along the spine like a dragon, the extended snout like a dog, and the two little horns like a, well, like a nothing good.
Removing the baby skeleton awakens something else, and the story never really slows down from there. Not that it was ever slow to begin with.
The book is told in the first person from Henry’s point of view, but we never go deep in terms of interiority. We see the story as a camera might see it. The book has a very cinematic quality. Characters are revealed by what they say and what they do, not so much by what Henry thinks about them. Each person has their own perspective to be sure, but you’ll need to watch how they behave to decipher it.
There are moments where I suspected the book wanted to be more expansive, where it passed over things it wanted to explore, but to keep its novella length it constrained itself. Tor commissioned a novella, and Jeffrey Ford created a fine one.
So treat yourself to this paperback original. It’s a sturdy return on investment for your imagination. You’ll find that The Twilight Pariah, part ghost story, part murder mystery, swings from the craftily conventional to the truly inventive and creates compassionate characters in a very tight space.