If you mix Stephen King with William Faulkner, the result would be the posthumous novel “Little Sister Death” by William Gay. The story fuses elements of Southern Gothic, horror and the grotesque to fictionalize the 19th-century ghost story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee.
David Binder, a Southern novelist living in Chicago, received acclaim for his first novel but fails to get his second published. His wife, Corrie, is pregnant with their second child and money is running out.
David decides, at the suggestion of his agent, to write a pulp horror novel based on the haunted Beale house in Beale Station, Tenn. For the past 200 years, the house has been the center of weird happenings, an ominous wandering black dog and murders.
While researching his novel in 1982, the year that a majority of the novel is set, David opens a book “and with a shock of recognition saw an ink drawing of a girl.” He struggles to place how he knows her.
A brief flashback finds David as a child 25 years earlier, seeing the blond girl for the first time. This girl turns out to be the figure haunting the Beale house. She later appears to David in a graveyard, and to characters in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Gay does a good job of mixing Southern dialogue and nature descriptions of Tennessee, reminiscent of what Daniel Woodrell does with Missouri-Ozark style. Gay slowly builds the narrative and provides scares through eerie scenes and false leads.
The strongest parts of the novel come from the simple and grotesque scenes. These include the gruesome murder of a doctor in the opening chapter and a supernatural hallucination of Winnie-the-Pooh characters that has Piglet wielding a deadly ax.
Gay leaves the novel open-ended and fails to answer many questions about the haunting. While this is frustrating, the unanswered questions and pivot to a more human-related conclusion help to cement the novel’s literary value.
The character of Corrie is underdeveloped through the first 150 pages and feels like a side detail to David’s life. Her struggle with David’s obsession over the haunting and the neglect that ensues develops late. If we got a more well-rounded character earlier, the novel would have been stronger and not felt like a story strictly about David.
Still, “Little Sister Death” moves quickly and is a great read for a quiet night at home, in an empty house, with the lights off except for a lone reading lamp.
“Little Sister Death” by William Gay (216 pages; Dzanc Books; $26.95)