Matt Bell's nightmare on dirt street

'In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods' is a mesmerizing literary horror story


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Vegetarians will not like this book. PETA members, cat ladies, animal lovers in general aren't likely to enjoy it either. But there are many who will appreciate this first novel by 32-year-old Matt Bell, who has received acclaim for his short fiction.

"In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods" is a powerful work of art but it's also a horror story, a 312-page nightmare as repulsive as it is brilliant. Written in six parts and a coda, the story begins in the place of the title -- in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods -- and here it stays for the entire novel.


"IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS"

By Matt Bell
Soho Press ($25).


To this desolate setting have come a man and his wife. No names or time period are given but we learn that they came from a land with "cities, tall buildings, crammed streets."

The couple was recently married and has brought with them their wedding presents, such as platters and crystal, "the many objects we had been gifted." Maintaining this type of oddly formal phrasing is one of the Mr. Bell's better accomplishments.

The tone never lets up. His sentences, some almost half a page long, have an almost chanting rhythm that can put the reader in a trance-like state. The tale is told in the first person, from the man's point of view, with almost no dialogue.

From the beginning we feel poetically punched in the gut by his despair. After the wife has a miscarriage, a creature called the fingerling inhabits the man's body. Sometimes it speaks -- in all capital letters -- but mostly the man observes the fingerling's loathsome effects on him.

The man goes into the woods and begins killing animals, not for food but because of the terrible anger he feels over losing his son. Mr. Bell's graphic descriptions make us see the carnage and feel the pain. The one animal he cannot trap is the female bear. His wife, by lying to the bear and other magic, is able to acquire from her another child. This child is known as the foundling.

But this adopted son doesn't make the man happy, and he treats the boy with vividly described suspicion, contempt and jealousy. When he adds violence to the list, the wife takes the foundling and flees.

There is a lot of action and suspense in Mr. Bell's novel -- the man is like an Indiana Jones in agony. But sometimes the forward motion of the story stops for him to remember and eloquently ramble on about marriage, family and life before.

These musings are often longer on lyricism than insight. After the man gets caught in a trap he's set for an animal, the foundling returns to save him. Afterward they enter the lake and encounter a squid. The man must decide whether to stay in his "squidness" or go back and find his wife.

He reunites with his wife, but she is on fire and the man discovers that his lies make her burn but the truth cools her. The man then expels the fingerling, and soon he and the wife discover a crowd of foundlings dressed in their wedding sheets.

Eventually this tribe of foundlings lures the wife into the woods, "taken away within a deadly scrum from which she did not return." But in the coda is a twist that might redeem the man despite his horrible exploits.

Clearly Mr. Bell has more on his mind in this novel than just telling a grim fairy tale. He is concerned with what is means to be a wife and mother and a husband and father. He rephrases Freudian concepts about conflicts between parents, sons and daughters. But there are few solid takeaways for those interested in these subjects. Matt Bell is much more emotional than intellectual. Rather than thinking about this book, you will be haunted by it.

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Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.


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