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The Children of Epiphany

Frances Oliver
Ash-Tree Press (176 p) $21
ISBN: 1553100670
(April 2004)


I don't see enough of Ash-Tree Press books, I am sure you don't either. Many of you Cemetery Dance readers are true aficionados (and even collectors) of dark lit, so I'm sure you are at least aware of their fine record of publishing high quality supernatural fiction over the last eleven or twelve years. One of the best anthologies of 2004 (published very late in the year) was Acquainted With the Night, edited by Barbara Roden and Christopher Roden. Dancing on Air by Frances Oliver was one of the best collections. Since both were original titles, one can hope they turn up on "year's best" and award lists. But Children of Epiphany, also by Oliver, is a re-publication and, therefore, not qualified for such recognition. The novel originally appeared in 1983 and has been re-issued as the third in Ash-Tree's Classic Macabre Series. The first two, The Door of the Unreal (1919) by Gerald Biss and The Ghost Pirates (1909) by William Hope Hodgson are considerably more "classic" by decades.)

book coverChildren of Epiphany is set in the expatriate community of a small Greek island, the kind of place older woman come "in hopes of sleeping with young Greeks" and those who think of themselves as artistic free spirits but are more likely to be pathetic and spiritless. The story is told by Tamsin, a fourteen year-old-girl who is far wiser in the idiosyncrasies of the adult world than most children. In the grand horror tradition of Bad Things Happening in Isolation, we have a child (thus an outsider) who lives in an outsiders' community isolated on a small island who then is moved to an even more remote locale -- a Pirgos, an "impressively lonely" tower -- in a mountain village with only a few residents. The villagers, especially one old woman (they are told), are a little strange, but they are not to worry. Tamsin's mother Lisa -- an artsy superstitious sort -- and her boyfriend Robert -- an intellectual writer who Lisa is pressing to finally write his "great book" -- have been loaned the residence by its wealthy Venetian owner, Giovanni Morelli.

Tamsin has never gone to school (except for one bleak fourteen-month period while in the care of grandparents in Cleveland, Ohio -- "a place which seemed to me the ends of the earth") but is well educated. Her bohemian lifestyle seems to suit her and she, like most young people in an amoral environment, has a well-developed sense of self-discovered morality. Her romantic mother is often less mature and far less perceptive than Tamsin.

Once housed at the Pirgos, Tamsin is delighted to find a friend her age, Heleni, and her handsome, heartthrob of a brother, Petros, almost next door. They are members of the family who care for the crazy old lady they had been told of. Hugo, a sinister German appears on the scene and begins telling strange tales and bringing dissention. Tamsin sees his "shit-stirring" for what it is, but the adults seem entranced by him. One of his stories is of a local belief in the children of Epiphany. Those born between Christmas and Epiphany are, supposedly, soulless and can only survive by taking the souls of others. He claims that Heleni and Petros are thought to be such. Hugo lives near a ravine that has been deserted by other humans and that the locals avoid. Tamsin, perhaps more psychically attuned than the adults, picks up the bad vibes of the geography and Hugo, but Lisa and Robert remain not only ignorant, but also disdainful of Tamsin's fears. Things get creepier and Hugo grows creepier still -- if anyone is preying on anyone, it is obvious to Tamsin that it must be Hugo. Jo, a former fat girl, who has lived with Hugo for two months suddenly appears and is listless and skeletally thin. Signor Morelli is rumored to be returning, the danger thickens, and the supernatural becomes more palpable. The grown-ups spiral downward into a strange abyss. Tamsin starts to be seen as mentally disturbed or overly influenced by Heleni and Petros.

There is no possibility the reader will be able to stop reading. Oliver's atmosphere and plot may play on Gothic convention and ghost story tradition, but her exquisite rendition of locale and vibrant modern characters make it all fresh. Positive comparison to M.R. James is unavoidable and the author herself references Henry James. There is much here of "the expected" and even the hokey, but it is all so well-executed you can just indulge in a novel that passes Lovecraft's "one test of the really weird" -- that "there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim." (from Cemetery Dance #53)