Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Maynard's House by Herman Raucher (1980): Girl from the North Country

[The tree] was gnarled and twisted and barren. It sported no foliage, not a sprig of green or a somnolent bud waiting for April. Nor was there snow on any of its branches. It was just stuck, apparently lifeless. And even in that sunlit afternoon where the evergreens shot mammoth black shadows across the snow, this tree cast no shadow at all.

Should I be surprised that such an evocative piece of horror fiction should spring from the pen of a literal "Mad man"? During his stint in the New York advertising world during the Fifties and Sixties, author Herman Raucher (b. 1928, Brooklyn) wrote plays and for television, then hit the jackpot with the autobiographical script and novelization for the hugely successful 1971 coming-of-age film Summer of '42 (for all y'all horror film fans out there, this is what little Danny is watching on TV in an early scene of Kubrick's Shining).

Dell Books, 1976 paperback

I've neither read the book nor seen the movie of '42, but they made Raucher a heavy hitter, and heavy hitting is what he's doing in his 1980 Vietnam-by-way-of-winter-Gothic, Maynard's House (Berkley paperback edition, Sept 1981, cover artist unknown). Should've known a man who can plumb and create the unspoken desires of the American consumer can also plumb darker recesses as well: Maynard's House is a gripping vintage read of low-key horror and mounting suspense.

Twenty-three-year-old Austin Fletcher is on a chugging train heading into the wilds of the great frozen state of Maine in the winter of '72-'73 when Maynard's House opens. Freshly home from the conflict in Vietnam, he's on his way to a house on eight acres of land in the god-knows-where town of Belden, said house having been willed to him on an entirely legal scrap of worn notebook paper by the late Maynard Whittier. Maynard is—was—a fellow young servicemen who, and Austin's not exactly sure how, had befriended Austin but then had the unfortunate luck of being killed in the line of duty.

Death had come quickly. Incoming mail, just one round round. Probably fired off by a Cong infiltrator who came upon the abandoned mortar in the brush and wasn't all that sure how to use it or where he was aiming it. Things like that happened every day. Luck of the draw. Spin of the wheel. Something like that.
Ah, the familiar tang of Vietnam-era fatalism and nonchalance about death and fate. With neither man having much in the way of family, the house will become a locus of their relationship, even after death. Austin is the kind of young man who hasn't made much of an impression on the world, wherever he went in life, he was never missed when he left. But maybe here, in Maynard's house, he can begin to live...

1980 hardcover from Putnam's

Upon arriving in Belden, Austin meets Jack Meeker, local mailman and general store owner, face like a favorite leather wallet, teeth like a barn door in an Andrew Wyeth painting, who speaks perfect Maine-accented English. He introduces Austin to not only the other men around but also to the delicate nature of personal interaction thereabout. You know these types of country men, literal to a fault, taciturn and distrustful, ornery, quick to find fault in others, full of assumption that everyone does things the way they do and thinks they're fools when they don't. "Gettin' a little testy there, Austin," Meeker says at one point early on when Austin grows a little weary of local know-it-alls. "That'll be the wrong attitude for a man let out heah to his own devices." 

Eventually Meeker takes Austin to Maynard's house, crouched low and gray and brown like a cat, its tail pressed against the cushiony hill, its mind semi-shut in a winter nap... a low-slung thing, cedar-shingled and loosely built, seemingly haphazard yet somehow indestructible. Then Meeker tells him that nearby is a shadowless witch's tree, where 250 years before a woman was hanged for being a witch, and her house—now rebuilt as Maynard's house—burned to the foundation. Thus begins a short discussion of the hows and wherefores of a witch's powers: "A witch can occupy a house and do things to ya if you cross its threshold," Meeker explains, noting that a witch can manipulate people. Austin isn't very much convinced, but agrees that a respectful awareness of these beliefs is in order.

1980 UK paperback

Austin settles into his old friend's house, marveling at how well-stocked it is, admiring its huge library (lots of Thoreau, who becomes a kind of intellectual beacon throughout) and tools and decor, seeing into Maynard's character and nature. Adventures with a deer, with the outhouse, and even a colorful hunter tracking a bear ensue, all delivered in Raucher's hale, hearty style. Austin learns about local history, of legends about woodland sprites called Minnawickies that dance on an outcropping known as the Devil's Dancing Rock—more notes of oddness and unease. On an old wooden plank hung up as ornamentation, he discovers messages carved in it by previous inhabitants about their lives, going back a hundred years. These were not happy people, it seems, and their scratchings leave Austin unsettled: This house is not fit. It never was. Nor will it burn. To hell with it.

The mood lightens some with the appearance of Ara and Froom, a 16-year-old girl and her little brother. Their origins are unclear, but they seem to be from a family living somewhere in the countryside, and they traipse through the snow to play pranks on Austin. He and the lovely Ara begin a smart-alecky banter while Froom throws snowballs in the background. They show up now and then, while Austin attempts to become proficient in his new homestead. Slowly he develops feelings for her, lamenting her youth. The only thing she wasn't that he wished she was—was older, but Never in his life had he been exposed to such simple beauty, to such a fine winter creature, to such innocent sensuality.

1981 UK hardcover

Vietnam always hovers in the background and at times in the foreground... like when Maynard begins to appear to Austin and the two converse in airy philosophical conundrums. Raucher highlights the duality of the house: by day something out of Robert Frost, a cozy Christmas card setting, but at night it becomes Poe and Hawthorne, terror and shadow. Austin struggles mightily to make this home his own but it may prove too much for him. Vietnam has wounded him more than he thinks.

Soon comes the realization that rather than living in or with the house, he has to live against it: Fuck you, house! he exclaims at one point. Then, people begin to die, leaving Austin virtually stranded, unable to discern what's real, what's illusion, and whether that pointy witch hat tumbling through the snow is able to kill him...
Raucher's a pro, writing rich, evocative prose perfect for the lonely scenario; you can feel the cold winds blowing, Austin's endless struggles with both what he can see and what he can't, the darkness settling down into the snowy trees outside... and whatever may lurk there. Welcome touches of earthy humor and sensuality give the novel a mainstream feel, but Raucher can certainly lay on the eerie shivers when necessary, applying different tones of unease, ambiguity, or the outright supernatural. Raucher's given readers a true winter Gothic, none of the predatory beasts he knew to be outside came close to matching the fear he had of the apparitions he knew to be inside his house and his mind.

While it has more on its mind than just scaring you, the novel's wintry, isolated setting and uncanny erasing of the lines between life and death, memory and prophecy, reality and illusion, provide plenty of quality reading for thoughtful horror fans who dig character-driven stories you can take your time with. It all builds to a climax of repulsive, subterranean horror goodness that lingers through to the last haunting page, over and over and over. In short, gang, Maynard's House is a must-visit.