The Bright Lands Blends Mystery & Horror with a Fascinating Queer Twist
Author: John Copenhaver
July 28, 2020
Over the past few years, novels that blend elements of mystery and horror have gained in popularity and with good reason: the mash-up of a whodunit with unsettling supernatural forces is irresistible if your tastes, like mine, run dark. Many of these books, like the C. J. Tudor’s excellent Chalk Man, pay homage to Stephen King; King’s Outsider falls squarely into this rich liminal sub-genre. The Bright Lands, John Fram’s gripping and twisty debut, shares these qualities, tips its hat at King, and is unabashedly, exuberantly queer.
The novel centers on two brothers, Joel and Dylan Whitley. In his late twenties, Joel is a gay man who has escaped his oppressive conservative town of Bentley, Texas—a place where high school football is the religion and its players demigods—for the freedom, upper mobility, and escapist pleasures of New York City. Coming off a bender, Joel receives a troubling text message from his younger brother Dylan, the star quarterback of his high school team, the Bisons, and feeling guilty for neglecting his relationship, returns home to check on him and perhaps offer him a way out of rural Texas. Soon after his arrival, Joel—and other townspeople—begin to have eerie dreams and hear haunting whispers. And then Dylan disappears. Joel teams up with the Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark, his high school girlfriend, and the two work together to search for Dylan and, in the process, uncover the evil—human and otherwise—lurking in the town and in the soil of the land.
In the tradition of southern gothic fiction, Fram’s Bentley, Texas, is the central character in this novel; its denizens feel like many heads of the same monster. Fram juggles six point-of-view characters, both adults and teenagers, as well as a host of other characters, from youth pastors to football moms to cheerleaders to local police. At times this can present a challenge for the reader, but as you sink deeper in the story, the perspectives begin to feel like a chorus, all searching for the old dark thing at the heart of the town, of themselves. For the most part, the plot unfurls like a crime story, part police procedural, thanks to Starsha’s level-headed presence, and part amateur detective story, largely due to Joel’s passionate efforts. Fram is particularly effective at giving his teenagers that gritty noir-ish pout and sulk reminiscent of Megan Abbott’s high school novels, where, sure, the boys play ball and are worshipped by the town, but it’s the cheerleaders who really rule the roost (or the “herd” in this case)—and kick ass.
I’m loath to divulge too much of the story other than to say that, while the mechanics of the novel feel at first like moody, well-written crime fiction with a central gay character and southern milieu, the story shifts—sinks—into dark, unsettling, sexy, and bloody place. It’s in that place, with all its chaos and violence, that its central questions emerge: Does hedonism free us or trap us? Do drugs expand our consciousness or ensnare our souls? Is escaping ourselves, even our hometowns, the same as being free? These are the sorts of questions a young gay urbanite might ask himself? Or a teenage football player in rural Texas? The two worlds can be surprisingly—and unnervingly—similar. The underlying warning seems to be: Don’t mistake oblivion for freedom.
Mystery fiction is an excavation of the past; horror fiction is an excavation of the psyche. Fram’s Bright Lands is a bit of both. As readers, we get answers about what happened, but the why is murkier and, perhaps, still creeping underneath the rotten soil of the titular bright lands. In the end, I wonder if that murkiness is what is most compelling about this rich and complex debut? You’ll just have to read it and find out.
By John Fram
Hanover Square Press
Paperback, 9781335836625, 480 pp.