Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In The Pines

In the Pines by Karl Edwards Wagner. Appearing in the Where the Summer Ends (Volume One) anthology, published by Centipede Press, May 2012. Approx. 30 pages.

I first discovered In the Pines a few years back. It hooked me instantly then, and I've made sure to read it at least once a year since then. Up to recently, I was hesitant to post single stories from anthologies, but now that I am definitely past that obstacle, I figured it was time to give this classic horror tale a proper write-up.

The thing that makes In the Pines hit so deeply is not necessarily its horror elements, but more of how it portrays the emotional condition. Bear in mind that Wagner was classically trained as a psychiatrist, and the mental deterioration of the protagonist lends authenticity and credibility to the horror of what transpires.

Gerry and Janet Randall are a young couple that had everything going for them. Gerry's career was going well, they were happy, and they were starting a family. One day it all changes when Janet gets into a car accident (it's not mentioned how it happened, just that it is her fault). This accident claims the life of their young child, leaves Janet nearly handicapped, and totally destroys their finances. As Janet leans more on self-pity, Gerry teeters off into alcoholism, and the emotional deconstruction begins.

We first meet Gerry and Janet as they are heading to a mountain lodge in Tennessee (they are from Columbus, OH) in the hopes that the time away will help with their mental convalescence. The lodge itself is in a scenic locale, but is somewhat rundown. With not much to do, Gerry explores that cabin and comes across a painting. Nothing so odd about it at a first glance; just a painting of a young lady in the dress of the 20's, set against a landscape of pines, much like those that carpet the Tennessee landscape. But to Gerry, there is a connection with the beautiful woman in the painting that he cannot deny, or refuse.

Ok, at this point you don't need a crystal ball to tell that there will be some kind of spectral bond between Gerry and the girl in the painting. That's not a spoiler; he finds the picture early on, and that's what sets the action in motion. As his research into the girl in the painting goes from curious to obsessive, he falls deeper and deeper into his alcoholism, becoming more and more distant and disgusted with Janet. And that's not all; the further he falls into his stupor, the more the girl in the painting seems real. Almost real enough to touch...

I mentioned before that it is a realistic portrayal of the emotional condition that makes this story hit home, and that is true. Wagner does not go the easy route, and have Gerry become "possessed" or turn into a gibbering madman. No. What happens in this story is built upon an existing foundation; there was already guilt, and resentment on the hands of both parties. Perhaps having all the security, safety, and happiness in your world cruelly yanked out from under you like a carpet is too much for even the strongest of us to bear. This is something that Wagner masterfully observes in a one page introduction to In the Pines; a truly gloomy, somber, heartbreaking page that sums up the feeling of absolute emptiness that plagues so many of us (these emotions aren't necessarily predicated upon the loss of a child). And so, all the anger, bitterness, etc., is cultivated from seeds already long taken root.

And that's what makes this terrifying. Imagine being trapped in a prison of your own heart. You cannot fault either Gerry of Janet for the deep fathoms of despair that they felt. As Wagner himself puts it in the last paragraph on the first page: "These places are best left to the loneliness of their grief..." It makes to whole notion of a retreat as bad a joke as their life had become. Of course, dark thoughts are always happy to fill the deep tears and recesses in our hearts.

The horror aspects of In the Pines are very effective, if somewhat predictable. You can see or guess what is coming, but the characters and placement are so real (I believe Wagner was a native of Tennessee, and you get a real sense of him writing what he knows) that you can't help but get jolted by them. Actually, the very ending was handled much differently than I had expected and it gives me a bit of a jump every time.

Perhaps the only thing I don't care for in In the Pines is a short segment where Gerry comes across the diary of a former cabin resident (the artist who created the infamous painting). These kinds of scenes, to me, always come off as shoehorned in for forced exposition, so it takes away from an otherwise seamless narrative. Other than that, In the Pines is pretty much flawless.

We all have our individual tastes, of course, but I usually refer to In the Pines as one of my top horror stories. If you can track down a copy of it (Wagner's stuff is always kind of tough to get), give it a whirl.

Score: 9/10

Oh, and if you have a few minutes, give this song (which serves as the basis for the title, and is referenced a few times in the story) a listen. Can't beat classics like this:

No comments:

Post a Comment