Phantom by Thomas Tessier (1982)
For reasons known only to the Universe and not to me, I had never read anything by Thomas Tessier before. Tessier, after having written three books of poetry, joined the horror boom in the late Seventies; unlike many others he stayed in the field after the bubble burst. By 1997 Tessier had published eight well-reviewed novels when he began to concentrate on short stories (four collections) and other fields (he has written several books on golf, for instance). His last novel in the field was published in 2007.
Phantom was Tessier's third novel and (Spoiler Alert!) follows his well-known reputation of difficult and/or unresolved endings. It was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.
I found it to be a weird book, both in subject and in presentation. Let me explain.
The protagonist of the book is young Ned Covington, a nine-year-old boy who appears far too mature for his age who also embodies a child's imagination and lack of sophistication. An only child, Ned and his parents move to an old house -- known as the Farley house to the locals, after the family that first occupied it some eighty years before -- in Lynnhaven, an isolated village on the shores of the Chesapeake. It's summertime. School has not started. Ned has not met anyone his own age.
As he explores his new surroundings, Ned comes across an old, rickety, rundown bait shop. It's run by an old, rickety, rundown man named Peeler (who sleeps in an rusted-out car because his shack is filled with empty beer cans) and his equally rickety friend Cloudy. Ned forms a strong bond with the two and spends much of his time with them. For their part, Peeler and Cloudy try to protect the young boy from the bad things that have happened in the town. Ned's new home, for instance, is the site of a vicious family murder and, since then, has had an evil influence. Also, near the town is an abandoned spa which, decades ago, was the driving economic force in the village and is now a dangerous ruin haunted by something.
Ned, too, is haunted, by strange occurrences and feelings. He doesn't know what is behind them, but he has put a label on it -- the phantom. Just what the phantom is is and why it wants Ned is a mystery.
Phantom is a well-written evocative novel that tends to jump around too much, although that is the effect the author is going for. There are several truly terrifying passages, along with a vision of Heaven (or Hell?) that is absolutely disturbing. there are also some great scenes of compassion and humanity. The characters are all well defined, with the possible exception of Ned's father, who is -- let's face it -- something of a tool.
Phantom is not an easy book to follow and few questions are answered. But that is the essence of horror, and of life, isn't it?