Isis by Douglas Clegg

October 2009
Vanguard Press, 113 pages


Douglas Clegg has built a very solid reputation in a relatively short time in his chosen field, the horror genre.  He’s garnered praise from the likes of Peter Straub and Dean Koontz and his fiction has received multiple awards.  So, it was about time that I tried some of his fiction. What better time to plunge into a horror story then just around Hallowe’en? 

Isis is a very short tale, clocking in at only 113 pages of very large type with haunting illustrations by Glen Chadbourne. The tale follows young Iris Villiers from her pre-teen to teen years as she comes of age alongside her twin brothers at Belerion Hall, where their family recently moved just before the start of the novel.  The tale takes place in the 19th Century, placing this story very much in the gothic tradition.   Clegg tells the story in Iris’s voice through the first-person narrative and the words flow very well, realistically, and with a great air of believability.  Through her voice, Clegg captures the naïve innocence of selfish youth very well.

All innocence can be tarnished and through warnings from their groundskeeper Old Marsh, Iris and her brothers Spence and Harvey learn the history of a forbidden tomb on their property.  It is said to be something of a gateway to the dead, a portal through which the dead can return to the world of the living.  Old Marsh warns that a heavy price must be paid when the dead rise and come back to the world of the living.  Harvey and Iris; however, find it hard not to tempt the Fates and play games in and near the tombs.

In the first portion of this novelette, the Villiers family puts on a play for the town – a retelling of the Isis/Osiris myth, which involves death, afterlife and a very strong relationship between brother and sister.  Isis is, of course, played by Iris and her brother Harvey takes the role of Osiris.   Adding another layer to the already rich power of story resonating in Isis are the ancient texts Iris finds in her grandfather’s library. These texts are books of the dead, demonologies and grimoires. This is only a minor contradiction in Iris’s eyes – her grandfather is a holy man so she rationalizes that he needs these dark books so he can better understand the evil he is fighting.

When the story takes a turn for the worse, Iris cannot help but ignore the warnings of Old Marsh and we see the ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage come into full effect.  The story then, comes across as a fairy tale in the dark tradition of the Brothers Grimm.

In some ways, the reader can presage the path towards the outcome. However, the manner in which Clegg tells the story makes this of little import.  His evocative voice sets a very effective mood and the transition from innocence into darker territories was smooth and natural.  The book is short enough to read in one sitting and Clegg’s voice strong enough that you will not want to break away from the story until you finish. While this story is connected to Clegg’s Harrow trilogy, it stands perfectly on its own.  The book doesn’t really indicate the connection and since I haven’t read anything else by Clegg, including the Harrows trilogy, I can truly say the book works nicely as a standalone tale. 

While the story itself is quite excellent, the beautiful black & white illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne add extra charm and verisimilitude to the story.  The book is perfect for Hallowe’en reading or even as a stocking stuffer.  This is one book for which the packaging, design and overall feel of the physical book are nearly as important and pleasurable as the tale on the pages itself. Moody, somber, and gothic, Clegg’s Isis is a haunting and delectable tale of the supernatural.

© 2009 Rob H. Bedford

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