My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.
I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.
The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.
This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.
We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.
You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…
Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.
Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?
In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.