Short Take: Like reading Peyton Place while on acid.
Southern Gothic is a strange little sub-genre, isn’t it? As far as I know, the south is the only part of the US that has a type of horror named after it. I don’t know why it tickles me so much. Maybe it’s because I have always lived in a state that is considered by the rest of the country to be part of the South, but really isn’t. There are none of the things that make the South lovely (warm weather, antebellum mansions), but far too many of the things that give the South a bad name (rednecks, poverty, poor education, etc.).
So Southern Gothic novels are a way for me to remind myself that living in the real south isn’t much better than where I am. Sure, they have things like winters where your toes don’t fall off, but they also have swamp monsters and creepy witchy women and bizarre family histories, right?
Or maybe it’s just that the swamps and small towns of the south are uniquely creepy, and so books that are set there automatically have a bit of an advantage. In any case, I love me some Southern Gothic, and Tom Piccirilli has delivered up an extra-large serving of it with A Choir of Ill Children.
Ostensibly, the narrator of the story, Tom, is also the main character, but it’s the town of Kingdom Come that really stays front and center throughout this book. Tom is one of the last descendants of the wealthiest family in town. (The others are his three brothers: conjoined triplets who have separate bodies but share a mind and a voice. And they aren’t even the strangest characters to inhabit Kingdom Come.)
There are also a couple of mysteries that unravel like knotty wool throughout this book. Tom’s mother disappeared years ago, and his father committed suicide. A nameless, silent young girl has shown up in town, seemingly from nowhere, and someone with large feet is kicking dogs around Kingdom Come, sowing distrust among neighbors. But again, the puzzles take a backseat to the people, and the town.
There are witchy women who cut off their fingers to make storms go away. There’s a religious group, the Holy Order of Flying Walendas, who do a lot of drugs, take vows of silence, mortify their flesh, and bake their own bread. Not necessarily in that order. There’s Lily, a seductive schoolteacher who’s Tom’s on again/off again lover, and Maggie, Tom’s wife, who keeps a silent, ghostly vigil over him at night from out in the swamp. Throw in a holy man who speaks in tongues and eschews clothing, a coke-addicted documentary filmmaker, a redneck with a thing about fencing as a sport, and a strange little carnival for good measure. Don’t forget some hallucinatory interludes in which Tom has the same dreams as his mother, the ghost of a dead boy, a one-legged murderer, and a few other oddities that I can’t even remember off the top of my head.
It probably goes without saying that A Choir of Ill Children was a strange experience.
On one hand, the weirdness was great. But on the other hand, there were just too many characters and settings and backstories for such a small book. The central mysteries were often buried, and I would find myself forgetting about some large-ish plot element until it was brought up again. Pretty much every character is identified only by a single-syllable first name, making it confusing to try to keep track of them all. Ill Children could’ve been a really great book, and it’s clear that the author has no shortage of imagination or courage. But there was just too much of everything, and not enough foundation to hold it up.
In short, it’s just way too crowded in Kingdom Come. And I may never cook with vinegar again.
The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS