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Spotlight on: The Farm by Scott Nicholson

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The Farm by Scott Nicholson Scott Nicholson, The Farm

Since 2002, horror author Scott Nicholson has released a book each year through Pinnacle Books, and has quickly become one of the genre's "writers to watch." His debut novel, The Red Church was even nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. His fellow North Carolinians may not appreciate how he portrays their home region in his similarly titled series of standalone novels, but the number of readers who do is steadily increasing, and The Farm will undoubtedly continue that progression.

Katy Logan and her tweenage daughter Jett Draper are trying to start over. After divorcing her husband Mark because of his drug addiction, Katy was looking for a more stable type to help raise her daughter through these trying years. She found Gordon Smith, a theological scholar living on his ancestral farm in the small town of Solom, North Carolina (a town patterned after rural Todd, NC).

Gordon's family has a long history in Solom. His first wife (who Nicholson has rather cagily named Rebecca) died mysteriously five years ago, but her spirit still haunts the farm, leaving the scent of lilacs in her wake. And Gordon's great-great-great-grandfather was Harmon Smith, a circuit-riding preacher who was killed by members of his own church and still, 200 years after his death, reappears regularly in town -- so regularly, in fact, that the locals have gotten quite used to his presence (though he always takes one of them with him each time he comes through).

If that weren't odd enough, Gordon's goats have also begun acting peculiarly -- especially in their newly carnivorous eating habits -- and his scarecrow, made to appear as lifelike as possible, doesn't tend to stay where you leave it. Does the stranger in the black hat have anything to do with these odd occurrences, or is he just one more of them?

The Farm is not -- dare I say it? -- a barn-burner. Nicholson does not follow the typical horror style (lots of extreme scenes with a little downtime in between) here, opting instead for a more thriller-like progression where things build and build up to a climactic payoff. Nicholson leads us leisurely into these events, always leaving plenty of room for description, character thoughts, and history. Life in Solom is usually pretty slow, and Nicholson's prose offers a taste of that same feeling.

That is not to say that The Farm isn't damned frightening. Nicholson maintains a strong sense of dread, fear, and foreboding, as each character responds to these new events in different ways. Luckily, there are enough recent arrivals in town for us to also experience the old events through new eyes. Like Stephen King, Nicholson has a tendency to offer up quite a bit of information about each character as he introduces them before moving on with the story. Whether it is too much is up to the individual, but I find this very appealing, in some ways comforting, as I get to know each person as an individual before he or she is put in mortal danger. But more viscerally focused readers who like a lot of action may find it frustrating that the first 100 pages or so is mostly Nicholson setting the stage for what is to follow.

The Farm has a more literary feel than the average horror novel. Nicholson has a wonderful eye (and ear) for the details of rural Appalachia; he writes of its pluses and minuses with the same affection his fellow North Carolinian Sharyn McCrumb gives to her mystery novels. Both authors aspire to write more than just another typical genre entry, opting instead to bring a taste of literature into their usually pulpy arena. Nicholson even incorporates a good deal of folklore, from Appalachian to ancient Jewish to modern urban legends. The ending is fairly unsatisfactory, and the book as a whole could have used a little more editing for tightness but, personally, I enjoyed the languid flow of the story. It reminded me of the slow pace of small-town life -- one of the few things, other than the mountains, that I miss about living in the South.

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