The Pines at Goodreads.
The Pines at IBList.
Overall rating: 7/10
Robert Dunbar is an interesting person. He has written for various media, from theatre and television to print forms by way of articles, short fiction and novels. He conducts fun interviews, helped establish the publishing house Uninvited Books, rants intelligently about the modern state of horror, and uses the Goodreads site for both marketing and accessibility. In fact, while most authors shamelessly promote themselves on GR (I ignore the countless "friend" requests from authors whose pages I've never visited and whose areas I have no interest in), Dunbar has managed to illicit some great conversation by starting up a group not about himself (solely) but about "Literary Horror" (mainly) and I would recommend anyone interested to pay the forum a visit. Moreover, Dunbar remains accessible to readers by responding to posts either intelligently or with humour, or just to show that he does read what people spend the time to write.
It is through GR sometime last year that I became aware of Dunbar, and decided to give his first novel a try. Driving through Massachusetts last October I stopped at Annie's Book Stop in Framingham and found the 2008 Leisure Books reissue of The Pines in excellent condition for half the cover price. I was elated (with some other nice discoveries in the anthology department) and finally got around to reading it.
The Pines is a novel about the Jersey Devil (popularized through an X-Files episode co-starring Gregory Sierra) and the Pine Barrens. A very well-written and engaging novel, The Pines is best read not for its horror but for its array of strong characters. I found myself more engaged with the character relations than with the Jersey Devil folktale, totally immersed in the tense ambulance scenes of the beginning, and with the tenser ambulance employee interactions throughout. I was even a little disappointed when many of those characters disappeared half-way through the novel, when the Jersey Devil and our protagonists abducted the narrative.
This is not to say that the story itself wasn't interesting or enjoyable. The complex narrative, chaotic sequencing and the suffocating setting made for a strong read. My only problems were with the pacing, which was at times inconsistent, and the novel's lead character, Athena Lee Monroe. The pacing switched quickly from tense inter-character relations to quieter moments of reflection. Quiet moments of reflection are generally great, but the moments here are at times stretched into decades. Moreover, introspection from the novel's lead is not always convincing. Athena is an interesting character, but she is too distant to be engaging as a lead. She is cold and withdrawn and Dunbar sets himself a challenge by bringing the reader into the world of someone who wants nothing to do with the outside world, particularly not with a reader far removed from her own. I found myself frustrated with her, annoyed at her, and yes, even at times bored with her. She was great when seen through the eyes of others, whether it be Doris or Steve, or even through objective narrative, perhaps through the point of view of a tree, but her internal dialoguing was never as captivating as any external or internal element of any of the other characters. The others were just better reading material, particularly Doris and the riotous Pamela who would annoy me no end in real life, but was a real pleasure on the page. Overall I would have been happier with a slightly shorter version, but apparently the original edition was so poorly edited for length that it was at times nonsensical. Like many of my own reviews, I suppose.
What is most effective in the novel as a whole is the idea of monsters and monstrosity. We are faced with a legion of candidates pining for the definition of "monster," from a folktale creature to rabid dogs, from "backwards" pineys who drink bathtub gin and neglect their malformed in-bred children to more "civilized" contenders who resent their own offspring. We have a once big city cop who drowns his guilt by blatantly drinking on duty, his partner who is openly unfaithful to his wife, a recently freed convict who threatens his sister-in-law and son for possession of their home, and a lead character who seems to resent her only child. With a cast comprising of characters such as these, and more, we wonder who is the true devil in New Jersey.
Most devilish, however, are the unfortunate typos in the Leisure edition. Examples such as "Come out her" (71) are understandable, but odd and amusing are the sentences "He made a stabbing motion at Marl's yes" (152) and "Now are all you see Vietnamese and Cambodians" (176). Not a typo, but I was surprised that such a tightly written novel could resort to abstract heavy-handed lines like "A tiny scraping noise. A wordless whisper that could exist only in a nightmare" (305).
Despite my two grievances, The Pines is well worth a read, and I will search second-hand shops for its 2007 sequel The Shore (Leisure Books). Dunbar has two other books available, both receiving positive buzz; the collection Martyrs and Monsters (Delirium Books, 2008) and his latest novel Willy (Uninvited Books, 2011) which has a stunning cover. (Yes, yes, "one-eyed Willy" comes to mind.)