The Isle by John C. Foster

The Isle_John C Foster.jpg
The Isle
By John C. Foster

Publisher: Grey Matter Press | Release Date: Dec. 4, 2018 | Pages: 316

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John C. Foster's The Isle is a gothic New England horror/mystery that is positively ripe with atmosphere. It's the kind of book where you can practically see the crabs darting to and fro and taste the salt in the misty air, as you worry that your Kindle might start growing barnacles. When it comes to tone and a sense of place, The Isle is abundantly rich. Unfortunately, it's also a story that left me a bit damp in the end.

The premise is pretty simple, but Foster shades in some well-layered complications after US Marshall Virgil Bone is sent to a remote island to collect the remains of a fugitive. Trapped on the island by dangerous storms, Bone is soon caught up in a murderous mystery after the island's constable is found dead. What follows is a folkloric work of horror as Bone is forced to confront both the islanders and this small community's atrocious history.

I flat-out loved the isle's history and the dark web of deceit and murder that has bound this small village together. It's creepy and dreadful, and Foster uses it build some wonderfully unforgettable imagery. The isle is cut off from the US mainland by sheer force of will almost as much as circumstance. Given its remoteness, there's little electricity and no television, and its community is virtually adrift from the present-day. It's lack of modernity gives it an almost Amish quality at times.

Frankly, it's an element of the story I struggled with. I had difficulty jibing this lost in time community with the present-day, and the contrast between torch-wielding townsfolk with names like Increase Mather and Burden Ipswich and the cell phone carrying Bone never quite gelled for me. Admittedly, it adds a degree of discomfort to the read, but it's also a particular element that I found myself rallying against. I'm not a gothic enthusiast by any means, and given that the isle has a ferry to the mainland, this forced disconnect felt a little too forced. My brain kept telling me this was a historical narrative, but then modern-day technology would intrude, and it just all felt really off-kilter. I can't help but feel like The Isle would have been more satisfying if it were either historical or contemporary all the way through, rather than trying to saddle the line and be both things at once.

Over the course of The Isle and the unraveling of Bone's personal history, Foster gives us a very complicated protagonist that I could never quite root for. He's a character I grew mostly ambivalent toward, and as the pacing for the middle section of The Isle slowed way down, I found myself growing increasingly ambivalent toward the book as well. It starts off wickedly strong and has a few really smart ideas and story elements sprinkled throughout, but it never quite recovered for me from its halfway slump. The climax is well done, drawing on the isle's folklore, but we're denied any sense of resolution as the story sputters to a sudden stop, losing all the wind in its sails.

Ultimately, I found myself slightly disappointed in The Isle due to some narrative choices made by Foster, but those parts of it that I dug I good and truly enjoyed. Foster does a sublime job in building up a rich New England atmosphere and a unique folklore that, taken together, are as thick as lobster stew, but the delivery just isn't quite as satisfying.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of The Isle from the publisher, Grey Matter Press.]