There is something unique about the British horror novel . . . a certain feel and sound that sets it apart from its North American counterpart. I'm not just talking proper English spelling, barren moors, or rain-slicked cobblestone streets either. No, it's the style of narration, the pacing, the setting, and the atmosphere that all conspire to create that British feel
For its first half, The Summoning: A Supernatural Dark Fantasy does indeed resemble the quintessential British horror novel. In fact, my first experience with F.G. Cottam reminded me very much of my first brushes with the likes of Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, and Phil Rickman. His telling of the tale is slow and methodical, but dripping with menace and unease. It's like sitting in a darkened room, while the rain falls upon the roof, and the wind lashes branches against the windows, listening to an old ghost story. You can't help but feel the dampness pressing in on all sides, with the chill in your bones only partially from the cold.
It's a remarkably simple set-up. A young archaeological feels compelled to wander away from the team and start his own dig, beneath a mammoth old tree. He hears strange music in the distance (trumpets he only recalls later), and finds his mysterious treasure just two feet down . . . a treasure he feels out with his bare hands, never so much as grazing it with his trowel. Grayling, the professor overseeing the dig, is immediately cautious, suspicious almost, and enlists the young man in a mystery about which he clearly knows more than he's telling. As Adam is sent to consult with an expert in town, the mystery only grows, with obscure warnings about things untouched and places unseen - at least, by most of us.
As talk turns from evil doppelgangers, old magic, and ancient monsters to hidden worlds and mysterious travelers, the story slips from the realm of Campbell, Herbert, and Rickman, and into something more akin to the likes of Neil Gaiman. We find ourselves transitioned into a dark fantasy, part portal and part urban, that remains connected to its horrific origins. The story suddenly becomes bigger and older, encompassing not just Adam and the young woman to who he's entrusted his secret, but their fathers as well. Without ever losing the original thread of the tale, Cottam pulls back gossamer veils and adds one shadowy layer after another, with Martin - the third member of the romantic triangle - bringing it all together the moment he ascends (or is it descends?) the stairs into the forest.
The element of the fantastic really shines through in the second half of the novel, but never so brightly as to extinguish the horror. I wasn't sure how I felt about the transition at first, but once I understood where it all was headed, and saw how deftly Cottam arranged the players and the stories, I was more than happy to follow it all the way down the path. Having said that, it's clearly only a part of the larger tale, and it appears the climax that I was expecting is to be delayed until the next volume. Both monstrous and magical, The Summoning is quite unlike anything I've read in recent memory, and all the more appreciated because of it.
Hardcover, 256 pages
Expected publication: May 1st 2014 by Severn House Publishers