I’ve known Dave Zeltserman for about ten years now, having struck up conversations with him back in the days when he was supplying the ezines with tales of Johnny Lane, the self-absorbed PI who turned out to be much worse than even he imagined in In His Shadow (later Fast Lane). Once Dave hit the mainstream in publishing, he hammered hard with a troika of three noir novels – Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer. He’s done straight horror (Bad Thoughts), caper (Outsourced, about a bunch of IT workers getting even for losing their jobs to India), and a bizarre take on the traditional detective (Julius Katz). He’s even shifted gears within the same series. Bad Thoughts was followed by Bad Karma, a straightforward PI tale with New Age overtones.
It was The Caretaker of Lorne Field, though, that intrigued me most. Zeltserman explains in the book and frequently in interviews about how the idea came about, namely some weeds in his yard that just. Would. Not. Die. (I have a few of those infesting the mulch behind my garage.) From this came the idea of the aukowies, weeds that, left to their own devices, will free themselves from the ground and ravage the world within days.
This is the premise behind the weeding of Lorne Field, where the bizarre aukowies grow. For 300 years, the firstborn sons of the Durkin family have weeded the field, saving the world through back-breaking, thankless labor. However, in the mundane 1990’s and 2000’s, the New England town subsidizing this work has grown increasingly skeptical. Jack’s wife has never believed the story, and his oldest son refuses to take on the job. That’s when things start to go horribly awry. Jack brings his son home, claiming an aukowie attacked him and ate his thumb, a story even the sheriff of Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Maine, would find hard to believe. (And those sheriffs have seen some weird shit.)
Jack has a contract with the town, written long before the United States was united or even considered states. The first born son of the Durkin family is required to take on the role of caretaker. In return, he is given a cabin at no charge and an $8000 a year annual salary. It doesn’t hurt that, for most of that 300 years, the townsfolk were more than happy to give the caretaker whatever he needed.
In our modern, Internet, prove-it-to-me era, people are skeptical and cynical. They don’t believe in these possibly alien plants that will rampage through the world and kill everyone in sight. Trouble is Jack does a horrible job proving it. Even when he does, bad things happen that invalidate the evidence.
Zeltserman often gets into the mind of madmen (like the aforementioned Johnny Lane). Durkin is no exception. We get just enough evidence to convince us that Jack’s story is true, but then we also get enough to say, “Well, Jack believes it, anyway.” Even in the end, when the ultimate evidence presents itself, you’re still not sure whether it’s real or not. The end is from Jack’s point of view, and Jack is so traumatized by his downfall that you can’t really tell if he’s hallucinating.
Well, what did you want from Dave Zeltserman? A neat, clean ending that tells you who won and who lost? Go read Twilight. If you want to take a nice quiet walk into the forests of madness, Dave Zeltserman can show you the way.