There’s something about a flood that is structured like a story. Not just any story — the kind that’s mostly worried about afterward. A mystery, or a horror story, or something that combines the two — a Gothic tale about the return of the repressed, where something you’ve tried to bury or forget comes back to haunt you. A flood starts with something cataclysmic, like a hurricane or a tidal wave, but the ensuing narrative is all about uncovering what’s left in the event’s aftermath. Revealing a history of destruction and damage. Finding out what remains beneath the water.
Elizabeth Black opens The Drowning House (Jan. 15, Nan Talese/Doubleday) with a clutch of clues about what kind of story we’re in for. There’s her damaged heroine Clare Porterfield, grieving her daughter’s death and leaving her husband in Washington, D.C.; there’s the childhood home she returns to in humid, sleepy Galveston, Texas; there are the dropped hints about Clare’s difficulty returning after a decade, having skipped even her father’s funeral; and there’s the unresolved mystery of another daughter’s drowning 90 years earlier in the hurricane that leveled Galveston at the turn of the previous century, hair wrapped up in her dining-room chandelier.
All these Southern Gothic trappings show the outlines of dark family secrets, like the corners of a trapdoor underneath a carefully placed rug. And Black unrolls each of her mysteries in turn, teasing them out over the length of the book. Each is uncovered, held up for examination point by point; they’re like exhibits methodically catalogued.
The dutifulness that Black shows to her plotting very nearly takes all the joy out of her story; she’s so measured, in fact, that there’s little distinction between the way Clare narrates the story of her banishment from Galveston — in a slow, multi-chapter reveal — and the way she uncovers stories that are entirely new to her. The book begins to open up and breathe only when it gets distracted by something else, moving away from its damaged, self-sabotaging heroine and immersing itself in its setting. And the half of the book that becomes a love letter to Galveston, its peculiar barrier-island ways and the shape that its isolated, ingrown history gives to relationships and events, is much less predictable and much more absorbing.
A much different attitude toward history — and toward plotting, for that matter — animates Jesse Bullington’s The Folly of the World (Dec. 18, Orbit), even if he takes a similar kind of pleasure in Gothic elements. If it’s hard to call a book with a five-page bibliography careless, it’s entirely fair to call it cavalier, with Bullington’s gleeful anachronisms and delighted implausibilities running amok over a carefully researched backdrop of 1420s Holland.
Bullington’s best inventions are his set pieces, especially early on: an unrepentantly erotic hanging of a criminal, a rogue swindling a dirt-poor fisherman out of his daughter, and the con that both try (and fail) to pull off. If anything, the intrusion of research (in the form of endlessly debated political allegiances) only adds a taste of dust.
If he’s fast and loose with his history, though, Bullington is careful with the implications he draws from it. His plot is equal parts hard-boiled and horror — a con game gone wrong, a series of killings, a narrator unable to trust his own perceptions, like a Jim Thompson character in a codpiece.
But the underwater countryside the story plays out over, devastated by a flood brought on by shoddy levees (er, dikes), makes a clear enough indictment: “All for what?” asks the criminal. “A little coin was the answer, was always the answer, no matter the question.”