Horror lovers expect many things: chills, journeys to places far and fantastic, an upset stomach. Monsters, both supernatural and everyday. Ghosts, demons...maybe even a goblin or two. A must, however, is quality storytelling. The genre absolutely ripples with those who craft enjoyable, thrilling tales, but it's a treat to encounter a work that's dark, brooding – downright frightening – and beautifully written. “The Pines”, by Robert Dunbar, is such a work. Boasting a vivid, literary voice, Dunbar twists the threads of reality and horror until the two are impeccably entwined.
Athena Lee Monroe never wanted to eke out life alone in an old, broken-down farmhouse on the edge of Jersey's Pine Barrens. Fate, of course, is a harsh taskmaster, so now Athena pushes numbly from one day to the next, working herself to exhaustion on a rag-tag highway ambulance crew. She struggles to provide for her mentally disturbed son Matthew, and she's locked in an adulterous affair she can neither stomach nor end. Her dead husband's sister-in-law Pamela helps around the house, but is inconsistent and self-involved. Her boss Doris is tough, caring, but distant, and her lover's partner – a gone-to-seed cop who mourns his own losses – is too locked in a drunken cycle of pity to help the woman he watches from afar.
While Athena and the others flail in emotional quicksand, something moves through the Jersey Pines; something feral, hungry, and merciless. It feeds on fear, pain, and meat. It lives for the hunt, and – like a demonic land-shark – it circles ever closer around Athena and Matthew. A connection has been forged between this beast and boy. Does it hunger for what Mathew has – a home - or for what he is, an enigmatic echo of a monster that defies the imagination?
“The Pines” is truly an astounding work, a brooding tale told with haunting grace. The mystery of the Jersey Devil is intriguing, and the characters are real people with painful lives. We're not quite sure what to make of them as they try to make things right, fail, but still try again anyway. The narrative is rich, full of substance, and literary...very reminiscent of Mort Castle's “Moon Over Water”, though perhaps not as minimalistic in style. This is a work of art, and it only wets the appetite for its sequel, “The Shore”, and Dunbar's collection of short fiction, “Martyrs & Monsters”, soon to be released by Dark Hart Press.