It’s that wonderful time of year again when Earthling Publications announces their Halloween series title for the upcoming holiday. When was the last time Paul Miller failed to publish a stellar tale for this press? Hint: I’m still waiting.
Conrad Williams returns to the series in fine form here, following up his award winning The Unblemished from fourteen years ago, with a novel that at the onset sounds familiar but trust me—it’s anything but. I don’t know if the author is a baseball fan but he appears to be a master of the screwball, curveball, and sinker.
Writer Joe Weaver moves his family to an old house in the French countryside, a house with a past that the town keeps quiet. When tragedy strikes their London home, Joe, his wife Claire, and daughter Grace escape the hustle, bustle, and crime, trading it all for a life of quiet and little distraction. Claire sells antiques online and discovers a strange wheel in the garden that becomes her obsession and a reason to avoid their crumbling marriage. Joe hasn’t had a hit since his first novel and is scrambling to find magic to restart his career. Nobody gives five-year-old Grace much notice when she speaks about her new friend, whom only she can see.
Joe wanders through the town to spark his muse and find comfort in his new world. Each neighbor or citizen lends a special something to the story, as Williams wastes not a single character or scene in building a towering mystery of horror built upon brittle kindling awaiting a stray ember to set it ablaze. When he stumbles upon the site of a World War II massacre by the Nazis in Oradour, where men, women, and children, were mercilessly obliterated, a tale is born, a character knocking on the door of his imagination which soon consumes his life.
The story of Florian Tschantz, a German deserter from the Third Reich, erupts from Joe’s writer’s block, as Williams seamlessly integrates the soldier’s story with the protagonist’s, displayed as though typed on the found manual machine as Joe eschews the distractions of modern society. Soon, their lives begin to intertwine, as the author seeks a peace and refuge he cannot find in his home.
While Williams begins the novel with elements that may be familiar, One Who Was With Me is a special story. It’s not easily categorized, a sign of a memorable book. Move quickly. This will sell out as with every Earthling Halloween book. Don’t be surprised if this one finds its way onto several award ballots next spring.
Highly recommended reading for fans of well told tales, regardless of the genre.