Echo Lake, by Letitia Trent. Chicago, Illinois: Dark House Press. 280 pages. $15.95, paper.
Any narrative that manages to create and successfully convey a distinctive mood deserves to be called atmospheric. However, there are novels that possess an atmosphere so strong, so inescapable that it turns the narrative into an unbelievably engrossing reading experience. More than atmospheric, these rare novels deserve to be called something far more powerful: mesmerizing. Letitia Trent’s Echo Lake belongs to this select group, and it doesn’t stop there. From the gloominess of rural noir to the foreboding tension of supernatural horror, Echo Lake smoothly transitions between a plethora of ambiances that, while distinct, mix very well with one another and allow the novel to keep its dark talons deep in readers’ brains for almost three hundred pages.
Emily Collins is a thirty-something with few plans and nothing tying her to her current living situation, so when she inherits a home in Heartshorne, Oklahoma, from her aunt and hears her dead mother talking to her in a few dreams, she decides to claim the property, move in, and use the opportunity to explore her family’s dark, shady past. The house is deep in the woods and near Echo Lake, a deep, murky manmade lake that is often covered by a strange mist regularly. However, the biggest surprise waiting for Emily in her new residence is the fact that her aunt was brutally murdered inside the house. As Emily begins to settle into her new life and uncover her family’s history and the reason they moved away, she begins to suspect a string of recent disappearances, along with her aunt’s death, are somehow related. What follows is a tense narrative packed with awful revelations that show Emily how small-town justice works and uncover the murder behind her aunt’s bloody demise.
Echo Lake is a strange read, and that’s a good thing. The story doesn’t move forward at a fast pace, but Trent manages to shift between past and present in a way that makes the reader feel like the narrative is moving inexorably onward, even gaining speed with each revelation until it seems to be heading downhill and with failing brakes. Her precise, elegant prose adds elements to each storyline without giving too much away, and that helps the novel retain its absorbing nature intact until the last page. Also, Trent ties together elements of neo-noir, thrillers, and Southern Gothic so seamlessly that the result is the kind of novel that can fit under an array of genres but really deserves to be discussed outside the constraints labels impose.
Echo Lake deserves praise for a few reasons but, as mentioned above, its atmosphere sits at the very top of the list. Trent makes the reader feel slightly uncomfortable from the beginning. Nothing bad is happening, but things just don’t feel right. Likewise, once Emily is in her new home, the weather, the woods, the dirt roads, the sounds of creatures at night, and the lake come together to create an eerie ambiance that is truly unshakable. Emily hears things moving in the darkness around her and throws rocks at whatever creature is lurking there. The animals always run away, but even with the knowledge that the noises came from a raccoon or squirrel, the unnerving sense of trepidation remains. Once that feeling is in place, the author keeps building it up until the narrative reaches a point in which the mere mention of the lake conjures up images of evil things, and corpses, waiting at the bottom.
While this is a debut novel, Trent is an accomplished poet, and the beauty of her writing makes this one of the strongest debuts you’ll read this year. Also, instead of relying on the obscurity sometimes associated with poetry or abusing the tropes most thrillers use, the author opted for a relatively simple plot in which everything falls into place as the narrative progresses.
Small-town murder is not new in fiction and a family history full of mistakes and dark secrets can easily feel like the most overused trope in literature in the wrong hands. However, these elements placed in Trent’s capable hands become something new and exciting, something gloomy and gripping that places a thick fog over the reader’s mind that no amount of sunshine can make disappear.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press, 2013). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Verbicide, The Rumpus, HTML Giant, The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, and other print and online venues.