Several months ago I referenced a future column about Charles Grant’s Shadows and Tom Monteleone’s Borderlands anthologies, and that feature is coming, I assure you. However, this column tends to wander around a bit—much like my reading tastes, and my short attention span (ask any student or former student)—and this month, I’d like to talk about Robert Dunbar’s The Pines.
I received the ARC for the “Authors Preferred” edition of Robert Dunbar’s The Pines the summer of 2009. By that time I’d attended my first round of Borderlands Press’s Writers Bootcamp, and was still discovering what it meant to write horror unique to me. Much of what I considered to be “good fiction” changed as a result of my first experience at Borderlands, and, as I’ve mentioned several times throughout the course of this column, I first encountered Leisure Fiction during this time period. By the time I received The Pines, I’d read through my share of novels about werewolves, demons, serial killers, vampires, and all the usual kind of “horror” monsters. To be quite fair, many of them proved entertaining and enjoyable, and I’ve featured many of them in this column, with more to come (Like The Reach and Sparrow Rock, both by Nate Kenyon).
But something proved missing from many of those novels, and seemed even more so after my stint at Borderlands Boot Camp. Those novels were fun and fast-paced, but there didn’t seem to be much more to them than that. I forgot about the plots not long after I read them, nor did I have any desire to read them again.
It’s also important to consider that at this time, the only full-length work I’d spent any amount of time working on was Hiram Grange and the Chosen One, (which debuted May 2010), a fast-paced, pulpy adventure with big guns, magic…and monsters. Big, maggoty monsters. While I was (and still am) proud of the work I’d done and the story I’d told, I was still very much trying to figure out what type of horror writer I wanted to be. I wanted to write about something…more.
Along came The Pines. It offered me a monster—The Jersey Devil—and the opening sequences certainly seemed the standard opening chapters of a “monster” novel. A young woman lost in the woods, stalked by something horrible, something bestial…something which hungered for her flesh. The action was violent and visceral, as would be expected—though written with precision and care.
However, as the novel wore on, I suspected Robert Dunbar had more planned for readers than a simple “monster story.” As I got to know the main protagonists—Athena Monroe and her handicapped (and very likely autistic) son, widower trooper Steve Donnelly, (who secretly carried a torch for Athena, despite her sleeping with his brutish partner) and the rest of the novel’s characters, I realized, with some sense of surprise, this novel’s horror didn’t really lay in the monster stalking the Pine Barrens at all.
It lay in Athena Monroe’s lonely existence. Widowed too young, trying to raise her handicapped son all by herself. As the father of a special needs child, I saw myself all too clearly in Athena. Eternally tired and despairing of relief. Knowing she’s doing her best, tormented by her son’s poor living conditions, while also knowing she can’t give any more. Disgusted with the distance she feels between herself and her son—knowing that, while she’s out working all day long, Matty is becoming closer and closer with his aunt—but unable to bridge the gap she feels growing between them.
Athena Monroe’s life is desperately lonely, and she sees no way to a better existence. Much of this novel’s true horror lies in her experience, a horror that’s far more disturbing than the thing running through the woods.
Steve Donnelly is an ex-Marine and widower whose wife died shortly after he’d come out to the Tri-borough area. A man who formerly loved his work and maybe even idolized his partner Barry, Steve is one step short of becoming alcoholic, and slowly coming to the realization that he’s destroying his life, and that there’s very little he can do about it…or even wants to do about it. Worse, he’s also realized that he’s developed feelings for Athena who, in her desperation for a protector, has taken up with Steve’s partner Barry. Even worse, Barry seems to sense this, and as the partnership grows more and more toxic, can’t help himself from goading Steve with intimate tidbits of he and Athena’s most recent encounters.
There’s a scene which shows this awful dynamic in a terribly gut-wrenching, visceral fashion…a scene which, in other hands, could’ve simply been disgusting. Steve knows very well where Barry likes to meet Athena, in an abandoned building off the interstate. He goes there, drunk, and while Athena and Barry are together…Steve masturbates. There’s really no other way to put it. That’s what he does, in his squad car, drunk and alone, while Barry and Athena have sex.
After he climaxes, Steve is filled with a profound emptiness and promptly stumbles out of the car and vomits, gripped by a soul-deep self-loathing. There is some real “horror” here. It’s not an erotic scene, or a naughty or a “dirty” scene, or even a graphic scene rendered for shock value only. This is a snapshot of a deeply lonely and despairing man who has come to hate what he’s become, and, like Athena, sees no way his life could ever improve, so he gives into his lonely compulsions, because that’s all he has left.
The entire community Dunbar depicts also hums with horror. The inbred swamp folk, the pineys, and their threadbare, impoverished and filth-ridden existence, of which they know no different. The underfunded and jaded ambulance squad Athena works for, as they daily drag themselves to service accident victims who will most likely die regardless of what they do, or, if they happen to be pineys, will refuse care regardless of the severity of their injuries, simply to avoid the bill and the attention. Everyone in this novel is trapped forever in a waking fever-dream from which there is no escape. They’re doomed to wander around forever until they pass from this world in an insignificant and undignified death, only to be forgotten…and they know it.
Matty’s world is heartrendingly rendered, that of a boy besieged by an overwhelming world of stimuli which he simply can’t process. Matty lives in a time long before early intervention programs and in-depth research into autism. He’s forever trapped in a world he can’t understand, will never be able to understand, driven by passions and urges he has no language for.
By the time we reach the reveal that the “Jersey Devil” is a mutated piney, a being left to raise itself in the wild, driven by instinct and hunger, (and perhaps autistic himself, as teased by his developing psychic connection with Matty), we’ve been treated to cascades of very human horror. As fascinating as Dunbar’s ruminations on human evolution and mutation are, as Steve and Athena search through local history and lore and develop the idea that the legends of the Devil come from inherited genetic mutation, the emotional core of this novel comes from their lives. The nightmare they’re trapped in. The human demons they face every single day, and sometimes give in to, because they can’t see any other way out.
I’ve re-read this novel several times over the years, and each time, the Jersey Devil himself becomes less interesting, and Athena and Steve’s condition becomes increasingly compelling. For me as a writer, it has solidified the belief that regardless of how I choose to create suspense or plot a story (both are key, and will be something I’ll look at when I eventually touch upon the Repairman Jack saga, written by F. Paul Wilson), the human element always has to be at the core of any story I write. If I can’t lay down that foundation, it doesn’t matter what kind of ingenious plot device I develop, what I write ultimately won’t have any “legs” to get up and run on its own.
On Amazon: The Pines by Robert Dunbar
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.