Vanguard Press, 113 pages
Family secrets, old houses, local legends, and corrupted youthful innocence thrown together with a healthy dose of the supernatural can make for a good horror tale. In Douglas Clegg’s more than capable hands, these ingredients combine for a taut, precise and compulsively readable novel.
As the story begins, Young Beau Jackson and his family are beginning their annual summer vacation at the family home on Gull Island off the coast of Georgia. Beau has two older sisters, twins, and a baby brother Governor. Also vacationing at the familial home is Beau’s Aunt Cricket, Beau’s mother’s sister, her husband Ralph and their son Sumte and they are all held together (more or less) by Beau’s maternal grandmother, Grammy Weemie, who lives in and owns the house.
Being bored with little to do, Sumter eventually leads young Beau to an old shack in the woods. A shack Sumter reveals to have the name Neverland and a place where childhood innocence is tarnished forever. Clegg wastes little time in ratcheting up the supernatural stakes as Sumter informs Beau that a god is living in Neverland and that sacrifices must be made.
Sumter makes Beau promise not to tell anybody about Neverland, but the two break that vow and eventually bring Beau’s sisters into the altar of Neverland. After offering sacrifice to this god, the four cousins soon find themselves floating and seeing apparitions. Only Beau questions what he is seeing, finding it difficult to find the line between what his imagination is telling him and what he is actually experiencing.
Clegg employs an easy-going first-person narrative in Neverland, with Beau as our storyteller. His voice is extremely effective, having lulled me into the story with a sense of comfort. The style is, for the most part, matter of fact, but Clegg manages to balance that element with the horrific things Beau and his cousins experience in Neverland. The tension is ratcheted up as Sumter’s ‘god’ begins to hold more sway over Sumter, and it seems to have an adverse affect on the adults as well. When the adults drink and argue, the children inevitably seek out Neverland as something of a twisted haven creating a cycle of discord.
There’s a timeless nature to Clegg’s depiction of the children, Beau in particular as our protagonist is very relatable and that fact (and its effectiveness) cannot be underestimated. In many ways, the loss of childhood innocence here in Neverland is very comparable to the same type of loss of innocence the boys in Stephen King’s masterful short novel The Body (basis for the film Stand by Me) experience. Though Beau’s tale is much more ostensibly supernatural, the similarity in the way he and Gordon Lachance lament the episodes featured in their respective stories is very similar.
Clegg, as this review indicates, does a lot of things right in the novel. One of the strongest elements of the novel is its sense of atmosphere. I could almost feel the heat of the summer, I just about saw what Beau saw in that shack, and the feelings the story evoked really put me into the story. This novel can very easily be considered Southern Gothic, since we have the grotesque Sumter and his ‘god’, and Clegg captures what seems to be a genuine southern flair in the dialogue as well as the environs in which the story takes place.
The physical book itself is designed really nicely; French flaps and deckled edges give the book a nice almost weathered feel. Glen Chadbourne’s spot illustrations help to evoke the atmosphere.
Though published initially in 1991, this new edition is a welcome reissue that will hopefully gain a wide audience. Clegg’s novel is taught, honest, and at times chilling. The mystery at the heart of Sumter’s ‘god’ is somewhat predictable, but the authenticity of it rings true primarily because of the age of the protagonists and how well it is played right through to the end.
Neverland is the second book I’ve read by Clegg and I doubt it will be the last.