Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 448 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown, and Company via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.
Arlen Wagner is content with his life. A taciturn man, he spends his days as a construction laborer with the Civilian Conservation Corps and often instructs young men new to the Corps in the trade. Given the deepening woes of the Great Depression, he's relieved to have steady work. Now, at his friend Paul Brickhill's urging, he's on a train and heading to a camp in the Florida Keys to work on building a roadway that will connect the islands of the Keys to each other and to the mainland.
Problem is, for all that Arlen is a content, taciturn man, he's by no means a normal man. Arlen sees dead people. Before they're dead. So when he opens his eyes after a brief rest and sees a skeletal hand holding the cards of a card player nearby, his stomach clenches. The real fear doesn't sink in, though, until he looks around and realizes the full scope of the impending horror. Everyone in that passenger car is doomed. Some are skeletal, some have the smoke of death in place of their eyes, but it all means one thing. They are all going to die.
As much as he tries, he can only convince Paul not to re-board the train at their next stop. The rest of the doomed men taunt Arlen and leave them both in an abandoned station in the middle of Florida's sweltering east coast. Arlen knows that he saved Paul's life. Saved his own life. That is fact. But seeing a prelude of death is the extent of Arlen's abilities. He doesn't have a clue what getting off that train means, has no hint of the path on which his rescue has set them. Then they accept a ride from a stranger. They travel across the state to the Gulf Coast. And for the first time, they see The Cypress House.
Not even a man who sees death coming could possibly be prepared for the Cypress House - its secrets, its horrors...and its bitter truths. Their first night's stay, they live through a hurricane, never once suspecting that surviving nature's fury would be the easiest part of their sojourn at that house of death.
I didn't know quite what I was getting into when I started Koryta's The Cypress House. I was expecting a horror novel, actually, with those aspects tied to the house. I suppose, in a way, that's not too far from the truth, yet it doesn't come close to encompassing the full nature of this complex, grim, and bitterly poignant tale.
To me, the story seems more akin to a supernatural thriller than horror. It's definitely not the sort of book I normally read. I am not a fan of depression-era fiction. I tend to find it...well...depressing. Imagine my surprise, then, when I started reading and found myself utterly and completely captivated by the writing, the characters, and the story before I even got finished with the first chapter. By the end of the book I was left feeling wrung out and deeply affected by this compelling tale. The Cypress House is haunting, not haunted, and I loved it.
Set on the west central coast of Florida in 1935, an era when the country is crippled by the depression, Koryta's sparse and stylized narrative mirrors a sense of gritty hopelessness and desolate despair that must have been felt by so many of the time. His main character Arlen represents the less-is-more philosophy of characterization. He doesn't say all that much, certainly doesn't emote all that much, and I kept picturing him as a reserved but intense Viggo Mortensen type. No flash, all substance.
Contained power, damaged by life, capable, unbreakable...like a craggy rock with a stained soul, Arlen was, to me, a very poetic character. Noble in an era when nobility didn't pay, loyal and protective, which certainly earned no more. Flawed, for sure, and haunted by his past just as certainly as he's tormented by his ability. He is also completely sympathetic for the very fact that he expects no sympathy. Arlen Wagner, in fact, expects nothing.
Paul, on the other hand, was a lively one; the energetic, sometimes naive, hopeful one. Brilliant, but goofy with it. Idealistic and unbeaten by life - untried by life - he was an odd companion for Arlen, yet he was also the perfect compliment to the quietly intense man. I felt for him from the start, because the atmospheric chill of inevitability that permeated the book just forced me to realize very quickly that his innocence would suffer...as innocence too often does.
I don't want to expound on the story too much other than to say I found it gripping. Depressing at times, action-packed at others, it was a grim tale of corruption, lawlessness, and greed - a subversive triumvirate that breeds a malignancy that masquerades as power. But The Cypress House also dared to give readers a glimpse of hope and even love, and a battle against tyranny and oppression.
I thought the pacing through most of the book was fantastic. There was just a few places in the middle, before the full scope of the plot was revealed and so many secrets were still being kept, that I felt the narrative dragged a little. The intensity of the rest of the story kept that from being too big a detraction. There were truly gut-wrenching scenes in this book, and there were certainly many that were tension-filled. So many, in fact, that I admit, it didn't always make for an easy read. Entertaining, yes. Satisfying, yes. Easy...no.
In the end, I think I'll remember The Cypress House as a gritty, realistic tale about an ordinary man with an extraordinary ability, a quiet man who accepts life exactly as it is and calmly shoulders on...right up until that one final line is crossed, until he realizes that some battles can't - and shouldn't be - avoided. Some wars do need to be waged. Some things, some people, in fact, are worth more than fighting for, they're worth dying for. And love lingers.