New Orleans may be the best setting for a horror novel ever invented. Cypress trees and the dark water of interminable swamps are a spooky background for Christopher Rice’s story about rape, snakes and mind control in The Heavens Rise, one of the nominees for this year’s Bram Stoker Award for best novel.
Niquette Delongpre — Nikki — is a gorgeous teenage girl, the toast of her high school. She and Anthem Landry have been an item for three years before Marshall Ferriot figures out a way to break them up and move in himself. Marshall may be only seventeen years old, but he is already an experienced predator who goes after what he wants with a singular ruthlessness and a casual cruelty that he does not even seem to know is wrong. When he finally gets Nikki alone with him at the property outside New Orleans on which her family is constructing a new home and swimming pool, he grabs her and hauls her into the pool with him. Nikki, who is terribly afraid of snakes and can see nothing in the dark pool, is forced to cling to Marshall. He takes full advantage of the situation, and becomes vicious, and violent, when he realizes that she is resisting. But he gives in, allowing her to leave the pool. She grabs the flashlight then and shines it on him, revealing that the pool is full of — well, what are they, exactly? They’re the color of skin, and they’re everywhere in the pool; they look like shredded human flesh. Nikki runs to the car and drives away, stranding Marshall to become lost in his fantasies of killing her.
Nikki and Anthem reunite, which Marshall takes as a crushing blow. He is intent on revenge, and sees his opportunity in a party the Delongpres are planning for Nikki’s mother’s 47th birthday at their new home. He adds his own package to the luggage in the family car, a stapled-shut grocery bag that moves and shifts on its own; he makes three quick cuts in the side of bag to allow its inhabitant to work its way out. Because we know that Nikki is terrified of snakes — as is any sensible New Orleans resident who has spent any time around the swamps — we have a pretty good idea what is in that bag. And we also have a pretty good idea what happened to cause the family car to leave the road and disappear into the swamp later that night.
But something strange happens to Marshall that same night, something that plunges him into a deep coma that lasts for eight years. Strange things happen in his vicinity in the nursing home where he has been a long-time resident; the squirrels and other small animals outside his window die badly; it looks as if their skulls have exploded. One of the nurses immediately concludes that Marshall has somehow killed them. She isn’t wrong, but it takes some time and exposition before we learn exactly what’s going on here. When Marshall regains consciousness, he has a fairly good notion of what his powers over others are, and he knows what he wants to do: kill Anthem and Nikki’s other good friend, Ben Broyard. But he has made one crucial error: there is someone watching over Anthem and Nikki who has all the powers he has, and who is determined not to let him succeed.
I’ve always found stories that involve any degree of mind control to be especially terrifying. To be made to do something against one’s will, to have no control over one’s own muscles, over one’s own thoughts: that must be the very definition of hell. Rice is therefore working with a theme that ought to have had me on the edge of my seat throughout, and sure enough, there were plenty of moments when I was so engrossed that I could feel my heart racing. But the characters are sufficiently stereotyped and unformed that it is hard to feel much of anything for them. Marshall is the bad guy, for no apparent reason except that he’s bad. Nikki is gorgeous and good, but that is the extent of what we know of her. Anthem is the strong, not-to-bright type with a future on the waterways already set. Ben is the smart gay guy who takes ridiculous chances with his sex life. None of them comes fully alive, though Rice does the best job with Ben; the sections of the book where he is the viewpoint character sing with a conviction that is missing from other sections.
Rice sets his characters in motion well enough, and skillfully describes Marshall’s depredations as he develops his plot against Anthem and Ben. But Rice loses control of his story at the end, where he spells out the consequences of having one’s mind controlled by another. We have not been sufficiently prepared for what happens here, and it seems gratuitously cruel and hideous, rather than just and elegant. Perhaps Rice means to show us that horror happens even to good people, and that saving the world doesn’t necessarily mean saving the people one loves. But Rice neither spells that out nor gives us the pathway we need to come to that conclusion on our own. Instead, it seems that he wanted a cinematic ending to his novel that would give us explosions and terror — something that might intrigue Michael Bay or James Cameron, but which the experienced horror reader finds dissatisfying.
The Heavens Rise needs further development. That may sound like an odd assessment of a bestselling author’s fifth novel. But perhaps that is one of the disadvantages of having a famous author for a mother (Christopher Rice is Anne Rice’s son). There is raw talent here, but whether it will ever fully bloom is anyone’s guess.