The historical and the fantastical entwine like snakes in Samantha Hunt’s fiction. Her first novel,“The Seas” (2004), caught the tale of a mermaid who loved an Iraq War vet. “The Invention of Everything Else” (2008) screwed time-traveling gizmos onto a story of the inventor Nikola Tesla. And now, her new gothic novel, “Mr. Splitfoot,” germinates in the loamy soil of religious fanaticism.
From her home in the Hudson Valley, Hunt must have soaked up the spirit of New York’s dark woods, which have long been fertile ground for revelations. Remember, it was here, in the Empire State, that Joseph Smith dug up those golden plates, John Humphrey Noyes practiced complex marriage, and the Fox sisters clicked their toes to channel messages from the spirit world. Not coincidentally, a meteorite — a star! — crashed down on Bethlehem, N.Y., in 1859.
This territory, etched with crisscrossing paths of radical spirituality, bald fraud and sexual exploitation, provides the setting for Hunt’s novel about a pair of intrepid orphans. Nat and Ruth, who never let their differing genders keep them from being “sisters,” live at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission. Its founder, Father Arthur, craves the most extreme cases: the psychotics, the deformed, the children nobody wants or cares about. He dresses them like 19th-century peasants and uses them as free labor while pocketing their benefit checks and preaching a hell-and-brimstone doctrine of severe deprivation.
This is grim material, to be sure, but layers of absurdity run through the story like fat through bacon. The Father of “Mr. Splitfoot” is alternately horrifying and hilarious as he rambles on about the afterlife. “When the Father speaks of Jesus,” Hunt writes, “it’s so intimate it embarrasses Ruth, like he’s talking about his penis or a case of hemorrhoids.”
But satirizing religious fanatics is like shooting fish in a baptismal font, and Hunt has something murkier in mind with this novel. She wants to explore that indeterminate zone that separates the upper atmosphere of chicanery from the faith that lies beyond.
For Nat and Ruth, escape from the Love of Christ! Foster Home comes with the discovery that they can talk to the dead through a shadowy entity known as Mr. Splitfoot. Their fellow inmates in the orphanage feel comforted by the messages that Nat translates from missing parents. Eventually, these spiritualism sessions attract the attention of a slick manager named Mr. Bell, who brings the clairvoyant duo a far more lucrative clientele. “Like a stomach flu, word of Nat and Ruth’s talents spreads,” Hunt writes. “It’s not hard. Dead people are everywhere.”
What keeps all this engaging — beyond the real charm of these two young people — is the way Hunt refuses to let any conclusions solidify in her wry prose. Who exactly is Mr. Bell with his arch formality? Ruth notices that “his movements belong to a man who doesn’t need sleep.” What is the nature of his interest in the scar on Ruth’s face? And are Nat and Ruth merely pawns in his tawdry con game? It certainly seems that way, but it’s important to Ruth that they make actual contact with the dead. One moment, she’s just a naive teenager fooling herself to keep alive a vision of her mother, but the next moment, whiffs of ectoplasm drift through these pages, and you’re not sure what to believe.
The story is also cleverly complicated by its structure. Every other chapter takes place in the present day, narrated by Cora Sykes, a bored office worker who fritters her life away online. She’s carrying on a largely unsatisfying affair with an ex-Marine named Lord, part of the novel’s chaotic constellation of Hawthornian names and symbols. One day after work, Cora comes home to find her Aunt Ruth, whom she hasn’t seen in 14 years. “No beauty. No power. No shine. Skinny as death and even older,” Cora observes. “She’s hollowed out. Miles and miles of hard road. Someone sucked the life from her face and neck.” What’s stranger, Ruth can’t speak, but she insists that she and Cora leave immediately, on foot, toward some unknown location.
These two story lines march on, chapter by chapter: one describing Nat and Ruth’s adventures as spiritualists; the other following Cora and Ruth’s journey into the New York woods, “where silence has come to lick its wounds.” Like us, Cora remains largely in the dark about where this is all heading, but we can catch spooky echoes from the past. As Hunt draws us deeper into this forest, the current-day Ruth is clearly terrified of something — or someone — she confronted as a teenager. Cora learns that “it’s not just the dead who haunt us,” but she’s too concerned to break away, even as she and her mute aunt trudge through the ghastly remnants of America’s indigenous religious cults.
“Life and death are not clean, separate functions,” an errant nun tells Cora as the story hurtles along to its creepy, oddly lovely climax. Turned around and around in these woods, you won’t always know where you are, but there’s a rare pleasure in this blend of romance and phantoms.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Samantha Hunt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 322 pp. $24