Heart of darkness
J. Robert Lennon's new novel storms the castle.
At first blush, Eric Loesch is the kind of guy a lot of us are scared of becoming. Reclusive, suspicious and arrogant, he holds himself above and away from the people of his small town. And yet, when he’s skeptical of the way his neighbors nose into his business, we can’t help but think he’s right, and just acting on some enviable impulse that we’re not up to following. But as the narrator of J. Robert Lennon’s new novel Castle (Graywolf, $22) lets us further inside his head, it’s clear that something has unwound.
“I wanted there to be something about this guy that isn’t quite right,” says Lennon, talking on the phone from his home in central New York. “I wanted to make him a bit OCD, and also he’s a perfectionist and very pedantic, spectacularly unsuited for the kind of trouble he gets into.”
That trouble emerges slowly. At the beginning of the novel, Loesch has returned to the small New York town where he grew up. It’s changed enough that he doesn’t quite recognize or remember places and people, and the residents regard him with a disarming, if friendly, curiosity. He buys a large, abandoned home on the outskirts of town that comes with more than 600 acres of dense, untouched woods. He diligently rehabs the old house at an almost alarming rate. Loesch clings to pride and a strict sense of order, neither of which will allow him to let it go when he discovers that a small plot of land in the middle of his woods doesn’t belong to him, and its owner’s name has been redacted from all paperwork. At the center of the land in question is a giant rock, visible from Loesch’s window. “The sight of the rock moved and disturbed me,” he says. Not content to let sleeping rocks lie, Loesch plunges into the forbidding woods, despite no visible walking paths and no signs of animal life beyond a spooky white deer that flickers into view.
You’re better off not knowing much more than that. The questions that arise for Loesch during his descent reach deep into his past (one, for instance, flashes to the front of his thoughts when he plunges into a man-made death trap). Though not quite a mystery, and not quite a horror, Castle certainly borrows from the master of American gothic fiction, Edgar Allan Poe. In the same way Poe’s characters obsess and derive false delight from the machinations of their own minds, Loesch is given false comfort by his own supposed proficiency.
“Poe’s protagonists are very arrogant and think they can get away with things that they’re clearly not capable of pulling off,” Lennon says. “Loesch really wants to talk about what happened to him, but all he really knows how to do is tell you how wonderful he is.”
Lennon slowly builds the tension in Castle, immersing the reader in the darkness of the woods as unwittingly as if the sun set without setting. The danger of nature, even when surrounded by civilization, adds a universal creep factor to a story of poignant psychological distress.
“There’s a mysterious power to nature,” Lennon says. “You can never know it, but it knows you. As a person accustomed to civilization, it’s creepy to be in the woods.”
Castle is out now.