Friday, February 11, 2005

Ex Libris: Whistling in the Dark

Jack Cady's The Off Season is such an odd duck.

Described as ".... a curious pastiche that echoes unequal parts of The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland, Pilgrim's Progress and Don Quixote", I'd personally describe it as something that Elmore Leonard would write if he had decided to write a gothic novel. Or a better version of what Christopher Moore was doing when he wrote Practical Demonkeeping.

And that oddity, I think, is what makes this a hidden gem of a good read.

I first heard this book via Terry Windling's fantasy summary (always a good source of what great books to look for) for the year 1995 in The Year's Best of Fantasy and Horror: Ninth Annual Collection. Serendipitiously, I found a copy of this book at the second-hand table of a local bookstore a few months later and picked it up. Such good luck.

In The Off-Season, Cady relates a tale about a northwestern coastal town called Point Vestal. A tourist-draw of a place, it's a haven for visitors because it's... well, Point Vestal has a unique history of being haunted. As in ghosts walk its streets in broad daylight. Fortunately enough for everyone, these are amiable ghosts. Most of them anyway.

As to why we write: every town has an official history. In Point Vestal, an official history is easy come by, but a true history is not. Around here history is not over just because an activity passes. We write an absolutely true history, one uncloyed with romance. We include our own awful mistakes because each of us played a part. The book reveals pretty horid events which happened some years ago...

Our problem in writing a true history is: at some time or other, strange forces got loose in this town. They probably arrived early on. When the first whites moved here, they asked the Indians where to settle. The Indians pointed to the site of Point Vestal and said, "Take that. We don't want it. It is cursed."

Such an auspicious beginning.

Of course, Point Vestal also refuses to be fixed in time such that people from its Victorian past may actually be just ghosts in the present. But who can tell, right? There's also a Parsonage with its own distinct personality and an all-seeing watchtower wandering all over the place but the building is really harmless.

Now, is the book strange enough for you?

So: this story is a history of the cursed town as told through the viewpoint of five residents. However, this is also a story about a wandering preacher and violinist named Joel-Andrew and his dancing-and-singing multilingual cat, Obed, who arrives one day during the off-season.

And it is his arrival that sets off a cataclysmic, apocalyptic battle as Joel-Andrew and August Starling, a late-19th-century crime baron and the local incarnation of evil, face off in the town square for the souls of the people-- past and present-- of Point Vestal.

In The Off Season, Cady has written what I would term a 'sentimental horror novel': it's about hypocrisy and ignorance, vengeance and redemption, and ultimately, how we look at ourselves.

Cady himself described his own book best when he said, ""I wanted to write a book that would gladden the hearts of readers, but also a book that, if possible from the land of wit and poetry where all great writers surely go, my hero, Mark Twain, would enjoy reading."

Jack Cady died on January 14, 2004 at the age of 71. I'm sure that somewhere in Writer's Heaven, Cady and Twain are talking about this book.

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