Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Caretaker of Lorne Field - Dave Zeltserman

I may get flack for what I am about to do, but here goes nothing. Dave Zeltserman’s exceptional novel The Caretaker of Lorne Field is a genre blending true original combining elements of the horror novel, the crime novel and...the fairy tale. And now that I’ve got you either scratching your head or rolling your eyes let me explain.

As I read this unusual novel I couldn’t help but think of the gruesome tales of Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and even the Arabian Nights. W.W. Jacobs’ supernatural classic “The Monkey’s Paw” a story about the horrific consequences of wishing for too much and itself a story influenced by fairy tales was another that kept popping into my brain. Like the best of fairy tales Zeltserman’s book is so simple and so stripped down that the essential plot can be told in a few sentences. A man is charged with following the rules in a baroque contract outlining the meticulous care of a vast field that daily is overgrown with bothersome weeds. It is his task to remove all the weeds every day. If he doesn’t, the weeds will grow to gigantic proportions, uproot themselves, transform into monsters called Aukowies and take over the world. Each day he removes the weeds and burns them, but during the night they have all grown back. It is a life of endless drudgery. Then someone breaks a rule in the sacred contract. The characters are forced to make decisions they might otherwise not have in trying to make things right but only end up breaking more rules leading to the inevitable disaster. No happy ending here. It's fairy tale noir.

Following rules to the letter for fear of dire consequences is the fundamental rule of many fairy tales notably "Rapunzel" (which coincidentally has a lot to do with gardening as well) and especially "Bluebeard." That story about the wife told never to open the door to a forbidden room has been borrowed and recycled by many writers, even turned into a basic trope of hundreds of horror movies, but it has its origins in a fairy tale. Curiosity gets the better of the Bluebeard's last wife, but it is something more compelling that leads the characters to their destruction in Zeltserman's book.

Loyalty, filial love, and the preservation of the family are in conflict with Jack Durkin's stubbornness. He insists on fulfilling his contract as the caretaker no matter how much misery it brings his family. They live in poverty, eating corn flakes for dinner, and scrimping on their $8000 a year received from the town council for keeping at bay the monsters Durkin promises will show up if he fails at his weeding job.  His eldest son Lester, a lazy rebel, hates the fact he is next in line according to the contract but the younger son, Bert, shows devotion to his father and is eager to both believe him and carry on the dreaded job.  It is Lydia, his wife, who is fed up with it all and who will in secret take the contract to a lawyer who she hopes will find some loophole that will allow her family to escape its claustrophobic rules thus giving them back a real life.

What happens to the Durkins then is best left to the reader to discover for himself. The fairy tale premise transforms into a crime tale about child neglect and the suspicion of beating and maiming. Durkin and his family try to escape the contract that imprisoned them but pay dearly for their dreams of a better life. Remarkably, Zeltserman manages to imbue the pages with a miasma of ambiguity so that the reader is never really sure that Durkin is imagining the Aukowies or if they really exist hidden deep in the soil waiting patiently to grow immense and wreck havoc. The reader is compelled to read on hoping that somehow Durkin can find his way back to normalcy amid all the chaos erupting around him. But it is a dreaded journey that gets bleaker and more disturbing as it draws closer to the inescapable horrific finale.

This is the first book by Dave Zeltserman I have read. I will be looking for his other novels which I see from his website range from tame thrillers to hardcore noir novels of crime and violence. That he is not better known and better celebrated is an utter mystery to me. Based on The Caretaker of Lorne Field alone -- a truly original, imaginative and exciting book -- it is clear to me that he is one of the more accomplished crime writers we have today.

 This is one of many posts I am contributing to the R.I.P. VI Reading Challenge. In this case it doesn't stand for recquiescat in pace. It's R[eaders] I[mbibing] P[eril]. Carl V., who blogs at Stainless Steel Dropping, has for the past six years asked bloggers to read (or watch) and review mystery, supernatural, horror, and dark fantasy works (novels, short stories and movies) throughout September and October and share their thoughts with the blogging world. How could I resist taking part in something so obviously up my alley? When you see this eerie logo at the bottom of a post now you'll know what it means.


  1. What a wonderful review. I couldn't agree more, that the book is a genuine classic and that it's a baffling mystery why Zeltserman's books are not better known and appreciated.

  2. I haven't read this and don't know if I will or not. I'd have to be in a downbeat kind of mood, but I did, as usual, enjoy reading your terrific review, John.

  3. Naomi -

    I see your comments at many of the other crime fiction blogs we both seem to read regularly. Many thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts on this excellent book. Much appreciated.

    Yvette -

    I know you shy away from the dark stuff with downbeat endings. But this book, even with its many troubling and disturbing incidents, is really something quite unique. I'd encourage you to check it out. Even Zeltserman rates it as one of his PG books as opposed to BLOOD CRIMES which gets a NC-17 from its author.

  4. John why don't you do a post on The Monkey's Paw. I'd love to read that. Thinking of the story (years after I first read it) still gives me the shivers.

  5. Funny you should request that, Neer. I just happen to have been thinking of something I wrote on "The Monkey's Paw" ten years ago. Ask and you shall receive. It's now posted here (slightly edited from the original).

  6. Thank you so much John. Went thru the article. Believe me, it sent shivers down my spine.

    I wished for and received but thankfully nothing like those with the monkey paw in their hands. :)

  7. John, thanks for reading and reviewing Caretaker. While I knew readers would take this book as horror, my intent was to write an allegorical fable, and since so many fairy tales are also allegorical fables, the observation you make regarding fairy tales makes perfect sense.

    Btw. While I write mostly crime fiction (although Blood Crimes has some very intense horror in it), I'm not done with horror yet. I have a book out next Summer by Overlook with the working title 'Monster: The True and Horrible Story of Frankenstein', which is very much horror. This is a book I spent 6 months researching and has a lot of elements in it that I think are going to excite readers--everything from devil worshipers to 19th century London sex clubs to Marquis de Sade and his 120 Days of Sodom.


  8. Dave -

    Thanks so much for stopping by. I love author visits and comments.

    The English literature degree is starting to pay off over 25 years after I earned it. I knew I was onto something with my fairy tale analogy.

    Good news about the upcoming book. I'll keep my eyes peeled for it next year.