FOLLOW ME TO GROUND by Sue Rainsford (Scribner, 208 pp., $25)
The importance of subtlety is underrated in horror fiction. Too much detail weakens dark implications. The monster is always scarier when it’s lurking in the shadows, not standing in the sunlight.
Sue Rainsford understands this truth, and that’s one reason her first novel “Follow Me to Ground” leaves such a powerful impression. Never overexplaining the strange world in which she places her characters, she builds a growing sense of dread with chilling images, poetic language and an eerie, hypnotic rhythm.
The novel is open to many intriguing interpretations, but the basic story is simple. Ada — or Miss Ada, if you’re one of the villagers seeking her help — lives with her father in a house with a garden near the woods and the sinister Sister Eel Lake. (Don’t fall into the lake. Seriously.)
Rainsford is vague concerning the exact setting and time; we know the weather gets hot, and that days pass in a significantly different way for Ada and her father than they do for the villagers. In fact, time barely seems to pass at all, because they aren’t human.
“Father was always more creaturely than me,” Ada explains. “There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind. He’d come back ’round dawn, his throat and chest and his belly smeared with red.”
Ada’s pleasures lie not in destruction but in restoration. Instead of terrorizing the local populace, she and her father cure them of various ailments, opening their bodies to pull out the illness. They drag out the sickness, and the people go about their business.
If deeper healing is required, Ada and her father bury the Cures, as they call them, in a special part of the garden and dig them up when they’re healthy. They must be buried in precisely the right spot. “The Burial Patch let Cures sleep their sickness away,” Ada explains. “But the Ground, the long, long lawn, it gorged on bodies. Shaped them to its own liking.” You won’t know what this means until you do.
They have lived like this a long time. Now, though, Ada finds herself pulling away from her father and yearning for troubled, dangerous Samson, a human Cure who has become her lover.
Shaken by desire, Ada longs “to dream of his heart, its beat sullen and low.” Her father doesn’t approve, and neither does Samson’s strange, pregnant sister, so Ada must make a hard choice about the direction of her life and Samson’s role in it.
Is desire more powerful than duty? What does it mean to be human? Is this a story about a young woman breaking away from paternal control and into her own life or is it a cautionary tale about the perils of untrustworthy and predatory men? Is it myth? Is it allegory? Is it both?
The questions Rainsford raises are compelling, though the author doesn’t necessarily answer all of them. Instead, she drives you to your own conclusions. One thing is certain: Whoever we are, we long for connection.
“There got to be a time when all the birds knew to stay away from me,” Ada says. “It’s a hard thing to get across, being that kind of alone.” Rainsford reminds us that being so vulnerable — so painfully, absurdly human — comes at a price.