Quiet Places: A Novella of Cosmic Folk Horror by Jasper Bark
Crystal Lake Publishing (September 2017)
123 pages; $12.99 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Chad Lutzke
Quiet Places opens with a prologue presenting mysterious goings-on in the small village of Dunballan. Right away we’re given a potentially exciting premise as a lone woman aids local residents in their vegetative states, picking random citizens to assist while they stand slack jawed and wide eyed, empty bellies and soiled clothes.
But when the prologue ends, we’re taken through a detour that seems the long way around, especially given the two-dimensional quality of the lead characters—Sally and David—and their unnecessary distant relationship. And by distant, I mean neither person cares to depend on the other for love or companionship, and they proudly go several days without contacting one another to prove the point. Their relationship is established as something that neither character cares to invest too much into and, as a result, neither does the reader. That blunder could potentially be the biggest downfall for a tale that otherwise holds a lot of potential. By the time I’m supposed to be on the edge of my seat with hopes that Sally saves her partner, I’ve already been forced not to care about either of them.
I do understand that Bark wanted to establish a certain tone in the relationship that would have us raising an eyebrow when suddenly one of said characters wants to take their relationship to the next level, but it could have been handled better.
The meat of the book is written in third person following Sally, the new girl in Dunballan, whose contempt for locals strikes another point against her as we struggle to empathize. Sally spends her time in solitude, reflecting on her own inner demons and wondering why her significant other, David, is so distant. And this time by distant I mean the guy barely speaks. And he’s clearly hiding secrets. Not the greatest guy to up and move to a new village with. All mysteries point to a beast roaming the woods that seems to have eventually left David in a vegetative state, reminding us of the prologue. At this point, we’re left wondering if this single beast is responsible for a population of two thousand people dumping in their drawers and gazing mindlessly day to day. The answer to that isn’t a simple one, and thankfully a surprisingly complex and unpredictable explanation is offered by book’s end.
Now, I’ve read Mr. Bark’s work before. He’s good. This isn’t his best narrative. A majority of the book reads like a middle-grade tale, the prose broken with excessive wordage that shows he doesn’t trust the reader, spelling things out that often kill the scene, breaking the show-don’t-tell rule, as the third-person narrative pounds into us exactly how Sally is feeling and why she is doing what she is. I’ve seen much worse from authors, but I expect more from Mr. Bark. Thankfully, halfway through the book, he begins to redeem himself.
Nearly halfway through the novella, Sally reads from a pamphlet, shedding light on some of the mysteries we’ve encountered thus far. This is where Bark starts to up his prose game. By the time we’re led into a lengthy first-person reading from secret journal entries, Bark shines brilliantly with talent, as though he remembers he’s better than this and is ready to prove it. The book picks up tremendous pace, and vibrant life is brought to the story. It’s here that redemption happens.
Near the end, Bark presents cosmic horror that bends the mind as it’s read, presenting a theology that you wish you’d thought of, complete with out-of-body experiences, new definitions of God, the belief in God and the dangers of not believing the newly presented doctrine.
Quiet Places feels like it’s written by two different people—a middle-grade amateur still finding their voice and a beautifully eloquent storyteller with a vast imagination. I only hope that, should Jasper Bark read my own critical notes, he will find my words constructive and take them to heart, because with his ideas and the world presented within, there could easily be a sequel behind his creation. And I’d like to see that.