Engines of the Broken World
An apocalyptic horror story as claustrophobic as it is creepy, ENGINES OF THE BROKEN WORLD will keep readers awake --- and asking questions --- long after finishing its final page.
Jason Vanhee's novel ENGINES OF THE BROKEN WORLD is the kind of novel you shouldn’t read on a snowy day, or a foggy one, or when you're in the house alone. That is, unless you like being seriously creeped out, wondering whether you're hearing voices or seeing movements in the shadows.
This very smallness is what gets underneath readers' skin --- even if you're not claustrophobic, the sheer intensity of the novel relative to its scale is enough to cause serious uneasiness.
That's exactly what Merciful Truth spends much of the novel wondering, too. The novel opens just after her mother has died following a long illness and history of mental instability. Now Merciful and her older brother Gospel (recently returned home after being estranged from the family) must decide what to do with her body. A snowstorm rages outside their isolated house, and the ground is much too frozen to allow for proper burial, so despite the repeated objections of the Minister (a man-made catlike creature assigned to serve as the family's moral compass), Merciful and Gospel place their mother's body first under the kitchen table and eventually in the cellar, where she may not be resting particularly peacefully, if Merciful's eyes and ears can be trusted.
Meanwhile, all is not well in the world outside of the siblings' house, either. They've heard rumors that they are among just a handful of survivors of a dying world, and that whatever destructive force is out there (seemingly represented by an encroaching fog) is closing in on them, too. Their neighbor, the Widow Cally, might know something, or she might hold the secret to disrupting the fog, or she might know nothing at all. Their mother's body --- the one that seems to Merciful to sing and move around --- might be a ghost, or a visitor from another world, or some sort of twisted version of their mother whom Merciful may or may not be able to trust. As the fog continues to close in and the siblings' world gets smaller and smaller, Merciful must ask herself whom she can trust and what --- if anything --- she can believe in.
ENGINES OF THE BROKEN WORLD is a horror novel, but its stock-in-trade is psychological horror, the kind that comes (especially in this case) on little cat feet rather than in the form of a psychotic clown or chainsaw killer. It's a particularly intimate novel, with a small (and rapidly dwindling) cast of characters and a small (and rapidly diminishing) setting. This very smallness is what gets underneath readers' skin --- even if you're not claustrophobic, the sheer intensity of the novel relative to its scale is enough to cause serious uneasiness. In addition, Vanhee's willingness to explore matters of religious faith --- specifically a form of Christian belief --- from a decidedly critical and irreverent perspective may be unsettling or even off-putting to some. But Vannhee nevertheless provides the kind of ambiguity and potential for multiple interpretations that will keep readers thinking and asking questions --- and the kind of sinister ambience that will provide plenty of sleepless time in which to do so.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 17, 2013