A Requiem for Dead Flies.
Peter N. Dudar
Nightscape Press, June 2012.
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Growing up, I spent portions of every summer—and one summer entirely—at my grandparents’ farm in southern Idaho. They lived in a two-story house built by my grandfather in the 1940s, electrified in the late 1950s, and plumbed for running water only after my grandparents retired and sold it.
The second story was unfinished, the roof beams exposed, with old pieces of furniture stored away in dark corners. One of our favorite games was ‘treasure hunting’—rifling through drawers and cabinet shelves to see what had been hidden away, sometimes for years.
My most vivid memories of the old house, however, are not the treasure hunts, nor playing with the tiny antique tea set stored in a miniature bureau, nor any of the other typical childish pastimes my brother and sisters and I devised.
They are of the flies.
The attic had two tall windows, one on each end-gable, presumably for ventilation although I never saw them actually open. The sills were heavy with dust, quite unlike the rest of my grandmother’s immaculate home. And embedded in the dust—rather like archeological artifacts, were the flies.
Dead bluebottles, large, blue-black, and somehow threatening.
When I read the title to Peter N. Dudar’s novel, A Requiem for Dead Flies, those dead bluebottles were the first image that sprang to mind. Vivid, disturbing, somehow offensive. And I wondered how a novel might be able to live up to the intensity of that image.
Well, this one did.
Following the death of their grandmother from the effects of Alzheimer’s, Les and Gordon MacAuley return to the family farm to—of all things—try to breathe new life into the old homestead by brewing bourbon. Being there stirs old memories, horrific memories, of a summer fifteen years earlier, when the two boys had been sent to live with their widowed grandmother following their mother’s miscarriage…and their discovery that their grandmother, enmeshed in unspeakable secrets from her past, is not only moving into insanity but is also homicidal.
The set-up is intriguing; Dudar’s choice to develop the narrative by slipping seamlessly back and forth between present and past is brilliant; his handling of the two independent but ultimately parallel narratives is flawless; and the story that results is taut, engaging, and satisfying.
From the first pages, with their tantalizing suggestions of sexual abuse, mental and physical torture, and the frenzy of insanity, A Requiem for Dead Flies never allows readers to pause. Each chapter, each section, each paragraph provides some tiny bit of information that leads inexorably to the discovery of a portion of the truth. Seemingly unrelated elements—the desecration of an old family cemetery, Gordon’s increasing obsession with his hand-made still (named “Sally” after his stillborn sister), Les’s equally incremental fears of the old house with its bricked-in fireplace—all ultimately become individual threads in a complex tapestry of death, betrayal, murder, madness, and, when the reader is prepared for the intrusion of the supernatural, ghosts.
And throughout, there is the omnipresence of flies, living and dead. Flies coming apparently from nowhere to infest the empty farmhouse. Flies—dead flies—arranging themselves into terrifying messages: “KILL HIM.” Flies that may or may not be in collusion with the dead. Flies that permanently and devastatingly alter the relationship between the two brothers.
My grandmother never held late-night conversations with dead flies over the obituary section of the newspaper. She never became a threat to her grandchildren when they visited. And my grandfather, unlike the Macauley brothers’, was very much alive.
But the house.
And those dead bluebottles on the attic windowsills.
Dudar captures perfectly the essence of the haunted house and does so through the simplest of mediums (no pun intended)—dead flies. They lend authenticity to the setting; they allow characters to reveal their inner turmoil, terrors, and desires; they become a warning sign, adumbrating horrors to come.
And, in the end, they live up to the challenges of the title: A Requiem for Dead Flies.
A strong book, well-handled from beginning to end, and highly recommended.