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Spotlight on: The Backwoods by Edward Lee

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The Backwoods by Edward Lee Edward Lee, The Backwoods

It is always fascinating to watch an author's growth over a period of time. So far, this is only the fourth Ed Lee novel I've read, but already I have noticed a marked improvement in the quality of his writing. He no longer seems to feel it necessary to pack every page with gratuitous sex and violence (don't get me wrong -- there's plenty of both to be had in The Backwoods, just not on every page), but now takes his time unspooling his characters' lives and personalities so that we care about them (or justifiably hate them) before they die horribly.

Just like Flesh Gothic was Lee's version of the haunted house story, The Backwoods is his version of the homecoming (a theme Tom Piccirilli has explored to great effect) and his self-stated attempt to redefine the "redneck mythos."

Successful Washington, D.C., lawyer (she just made partner) Patricia White is returning home to Agan's Point, Virginia, out of respect for her sister Judy, whose husband Dwayne's funeral is taking place (though it seems everyone in town but Judy knew what an awful guy Dwayne really was). The trouble is, home doesn't feel much like home to Patricia. Something horrible happened to her in nearby Bowen's Field and returning to southern Virginia dredges all that up every time she comes back.

But it's her sister, and that's what sisters do. Judy runs the local blue-crab trapping company, and most of her employees consist of Squatters, a communal people who all have jet black hair (even the ancient patriarch, Everd Stanherd) and women who develop early and well (it is an Ed Lee novel, after all, what did you expect?).

But some of the Squatters are beginning to disappear mysteriously, and once Patricia arrives, more disappearances (and murders) begin occurring in rapid succession. Rumors fly that Dwayne's "undetermined and curious" death may have been just the beginning of a series of interlinked oddball deaths. Questions abound: Why is the location of Patricia's trauma resulting in an unexplained burst of sexual feelings? Why is a local developer so interested in getting Judy to sell off her land? Why are so many of the presumed-teetotalling Squatters getting involved in crystal methamphetamine? And what the hell does "wenden" mean?

To his credit, Lee doesn't pull out all the stops in The Backwoods, leaving a bit to the reader's imagination this time around. It's probably still not something your grandma would like, but it feels less like "hardcore horror" and more like just a damned good read. Lee's signature style shines through, along with his focus on the importance of fully describing a setting -- just with a little more class than, say, Monstrosity or Messenger. (Certainly more than The Chosen, though that was the one that showed me what an "Edward Lee" novel was, and why Richard Laymon called him "the living legend of literary mayhem.") The supernatural aspect that pops up by way of explanation is rather unsatisfying, but it does lead to a surprisingly effective finish. If this pattern keeps up, I'll be very interested to see what Lee comes up with next.

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