The plot of Benjamin Wood’s first novel, “The Bellwether Revivals,” is reminiscent of those horror flicks Jamie Lee Curtis used to star in back when she was known as the “scream queen,” rather than as the spokesperson for Activia yogurt and women’s regularity. A ragtag collection of young people is thrown together in an isolated locale where the air is thick with hormones and foreboding. Suspense builds, and then out of the darkness comes an ax-wielding demon.
I don’t mean to suggest that “The Bellwether Revivals” isn’t sporadically entertaining throughout its extended narrative. It is. But this clueless-kids-in-a-creepy-location kind of thriller so requires a homicidal maniac to leap up out of the darkness that by the time said maniac does finally show up here, a weary reader may be forgiven if her first thought is: “What kept you so long?”
The setting is Cambridge, England, where, also in keeping with tradition, our main character doesn’t quite fit into the clique. Oscar Lowe, like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, is a working-class dreamer who tries to content himself with living in the shadows of a great university, given that he doesn’t have the money or connections to enroll as a student. “What went on inside the closed-off doorways of the colleges was an enduring mystery to him. He only knew that it was better to be near these places, to walk by them and imagine what high-minded discussions were unfolding inside, than to be somewhere like home, where every conversation was audible on the high street and the only landmarks were shopping centres.”
Oscar works as an aide at Cedarbrook nursing home, where he wheels around the infirm and changes the nappies of those old-timers for whom Activia would be overkill. Thanks to the generosity of his favorite resident — an aged English professor — Oscar has become something of an autodidact, reading his way through Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. One evening after his shift has ended, the resolutely secular Oscar strolls past the King’s College chapel and hears “the muted thrum of organ music” at Evensong service. Inexplicably, he wanders in and meets his destiny.
Her name is Iris Bellwether; she’s a beautiful pre-med student, accomplished cellist and sister of the male organist, whose name is Eden. Soon enough, the besotted Oscar is swept up into the Bellwether siblings’ cultured set, consisting of a couple of barely fleshed-out male characters, as well as Eden’s lapdog of a girlfriend, Jane. Eden is a virtuoso, not only of the organ but also of manipulation. He’s a devotee of the theories of the 17th-century composer Johann Mattheson, who believed that composers could “induce . . . emotions through their work — to achieve that empire over the passions Descartes was talking about.”
To Oscar’s chagrin, Eden discloses that the organ music he was playing during that Evensong service was written by Mattheson specifically to lure heathens like Oscar into church. At one point, Oscar wakes up from a hypnotic drowse to find that his hand has been impaled by a nail. Eden claims that he can heal the sick and wake the dead through his music.
The plot’s tension turns on the question of whether or not Eden suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, colloquially known as “the God complex.” Wood vividly dramatizes the quandary that Oscar finds himself in: He’s so entranced by Iris and the Bellwether circle that he dreads challenging Eden directly, yet Eden could be a danger to himself and others. The showdown occurs at the remote estate owned by the absent Bellwether parents, where Eden retreats to a small outbuilding housing an organ — a place where the Phantom of the Opera would feel right at home.
The novel’s climax isn’t ingenious enough to justify its lackadaisical pace, but for those readers up for an extended sojourn in and around the golden precincts of Cambridge, Wood’s thriller, with its comfortably broken-in plot premise, may well be agreeable enough.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
THE BELLWETHER REVIVALS
By Benjamin Wood
Viking. 420 pp. $26.95