Altar by Philip Fracassi
Dunhams Manor Press (April 2016)
53 pages; $7.19 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Josh Black
Have you ever been swimming in a lake, far from shore, and found yourself wondering what might be lurking in the black depths below? There’s a primal fear being tapped, and with Altar, Philip Fracassi taps into it not through a lake, but a public swimming pool. Brightly lit, sections clearly delineated, lifeguards at the ready should anyone find themselves in need of assistance… A few rough patches notwithstanding, it says a lot about Fracassi’s skill as a storyteller that this novelette works as well as it does.
Martha is an embittered soon-to-be-divorcée who hits the bottle a little too often. Her son Gary is a dreamer, in reverie much of the time. Gary’s sister Abby is his anchor in the storm of this broken family, and he does his best not to upset her and lose her affection and support. One summer day the whole family (at least what’s left of it) takes a trip to the local pool. Things take a dark turn when Abby is taken against her will into the boy’s locker room. Soon after, all hell breaks loose. Something’s beneath the pool, and it’s looking for people to join it.
Altar offers up a good blend of real-life and supernatural horror, and the little details given about the characters help to flesh them out beyond what might be expected in a story so brief. In the end, though, it’s about that fear of the unknown so many of us have, and the way the life we take for granted can be upturned, suddenly and violently. By the end the chaos is absolute, and we’re left as the intensity reaches its apex, the true purpose of the big baddie only barely hinted at. And it works. At times the pacing suffers from an overabundance of adjectives, but at other times, particularly toward the end, this approach works in the story’s favor.
Other than that small gripe, Altar is a lean, mean little tale that just might make you think twice before diving into the pool. It would make a great summer read, but it’s well worth picking up any time you’re in the mood for a quick dip into darkness. Recommended.