In 2009, John Hart published “The Last Child,” a national bestseller that went on to win the Edgar Award. The book also introduced the setting — Raven County, N.C. — and many of the characters that populate his ambitious and surprising new novel, “The Hush.”
At the center of the earlier novel was Johnny Merrimon, a 13-year-old boy whose life had recently come undone. Johnny’s twin sister, Alyssa, had recently disappeared and was widely presumed to be dead. Shortly afterward, the boy’s father disappeared as well, leaving Johnny and his mother in increasingly desperate circumstances. Johnny’s relentless, methodical search for the sister formed the heart of the complex narrative. Accompanied by his best friend, Jack Cross, an abused 13-year-old with secrets of his own, Johnny explored some of Raven County’s darkest corners, eventually uncovering the answer to his sister’s disappearance, and to some larger, unrelated mysteries as well.
Johnny’s investigation took him into a desolate section of Raven County known as Hush Arbor, the eponymous “Hush” of the current novel. A wild tract spanning 6,000 acres and composed mainly of forest and impenetrable swamp, Hush Arbor was the site of the 19th-century murders of a number of slaves once owned by a Merrimon ancestor. It’s a haunting and haunted place that exerted an immediate hold on Johnny. Over time, that influence would only grow. By the time the new novel begins, his fascination has reached obsessive levels, and the Hush has become both his physical and his spiritual home.
“The Hush” takes place 10 years after the events recounted in “The Last Child.” By this time, much has changed. Johnny’s mother has remarried and rebuilt her life. Jack Cross has overcome a litany of obstacles and earned a law degree. The difficult events of the past have faded and become part of the town’s half-forgotten history. And Johnny (now known as John) has retreated to the haunted precincts of the Hush, where he sleeps in a tree, grows his own food and spends his days protecting his home from unwelcome visitors. In the course of all this, he comes to understand the twisted history of Hush Arbor and the bizarre, brutal forces that animate it.
John — the only living descendant of the original slave-owning Merrimon — is now the sole owner of the entire 6,000 acres of Hush Arbor. He patrols his domain constantly, guarding against intruders with an obsessive’s single-mindedness. Having abandoned the trappings of civilized society, he leads a largely solitary life. He sees his remaining family from time to time, but the one constant in his life is Jack Cross, still his friend despite their complex, sometimes painful personal history.
But all of John’s human connections take second place to the one attachment that governs his life: his relationship with the Hush. As the narrative unfolds, John will be confronted with the competing claims of another family with equally deep connections to the land.
The rival claimants are Luana Freemantle and her daughter Cree, direct descendants of the original slave population. For Luana, the Hush represents the financial freedom that has always eluded her, while her daughter is motivated by a deep sense of spiritual kinship with the land. Another figure, William Boyd, has his own reasons for wanting to own that land. A billionaire investor and avid hunter, Boyd believes that the Hush will offer hunters like himself pleasures — and challenges — unavailable anywhere else. And he is right. As these three — and John Merrimon — pursue ownership, the violent history of the Hush comes slowly into focus, and we come to realize that what we are reading is, in fact, a horror story.
Hush Arbor truly is a haunted place, and the origins of that haunting go back to the days of the African slave trade. Hart skillfully weaves that history into the primary story. Set pieces recounting some of the region’s more horrific encounters are among the highlights of an engrossing, cumulatively disturbing narrative that encompasses murder, madness, magic, betrayal and obsessive, undying love. The result is unlike anything Hart has done before. The intertwining narratives involving John Merrimon, the Freemantles and their quest to possess the land and its secrets are consistently compelling, but Hart’s central achievement is his vivid, hallucinatory portrait of Hush Arbor itself.
The Hush is a harsh, inimical landscape in which disorientation rules and trees, paths and familiar landmarks seem to shift and disappear. It is a self-contained world in which unwelcome visitors are sometimes driven to madness and sometimes destroyed, and Hart evokes that surreal landscape with a power and economy worthy of the great British horror novelist Ramsey Campbell. “In that first hour, the forest was still,” Hart writes, “but as light strengthened, a dawn chorus rose around them, a symphony of catbird and Carolina wren, of mourning dove and cardinal and the deep-throated gunk of green frogs in the pocosins that fingered up from the distant swamp.”
With its supernatural overtones and blurring of genre boundaries, “The Hush” may well seem like an anomaly. Regardless, readers should happily follow along into its hypnotic world.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By John Hart
St. Martin’s. 418 pp. $27.99