I remember reading Little Brothers a number of years ago and being impressed with it, so much so that when I had the opportunity to purchase it for my Kindle recently, I was delighted. Untcigahunk included not only the 1988 novel but short-story prequels to it and a sequence of tales providing a mythic basis for the eponymous creatures. (For further information on the collection, please see my review at: Untcigahunk.)
International Bestseller, New York Times Bestseller, and Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achiecement recipient Rick Hautala has published over thirty books, but Little Brothers remains a perennial favorite. It has in a sense now been recognized as a classic by the recent release by Cemetery Dance of a prequel, Indian Summer, in a signed, limited hardcover edition.
Set in October, 1961, Indian Summer is the story of twelve-year-old Billy Crowell and his horrifying encounter with the Little Brothers. Along the way, he confronts the dangers of a forest fire, meets a mysterious woman on an isolated farm, feels the first confusing stirrings of adolescent sexuality when he thinks of her, is persuaded to help her in her attempt to avenge the death of her mother two decades earlier, and is burdened with secrets far too heavy for someone his age to have to bear. The 126-page tale is told crisply, with intriguing characters (although the relationship between Billy and his brother Mike may be a bit too similar to the antagonism between Kip and Marty Howard in Little Brothers) and highly effective landscapes that function both literally and symbolically. In addition, the limited edition showcases a haunting dust jacket painting and a number of black-and-white illustrations by Glen Chadbourne that evoke key scenes in the novel. On the whole it is an excellent combination of accomplished storytelling and fine book-making.
As a story, Indian Summer both met my expectations and exceeded them. As part of the Untcigahunk mythos, it provides the same senses of danger, anticipation, and suspense as Little Brothers and the other published stories. It takes a character and, through entirely believable circumstances, introduces him to the unbelievable, the impossible, the deadly. As he struggles to accept what he has seen — and what he intuits — he is forced to make difficult decisions that, inexorably, lead to a direct encounter with the Little Brothers.
And that is where Indian Summer does something unexpected and remarkable. The creatures are defeated … at least, they retreat for a time (we know they will be back in about five years), but in taking the offensive against them, Billy Crowell opens himself up in ways that characters in the other prequel stories did not.
In a moment of crisis, when not only his life but the lives of others are at stake, he must decide on a course of action. He does so, and innocents die. His choice is entirely understandable; after all, he is only twelve and no one, not even his parents or the police, would believe what he has encountered. But the fact remains that, even though he would most likely have also died, horribly mutilated, had he chosen differently, he holds himself secretly accountable for the deaths.
Then, when asked to lead the police to the place where he had seen and fought against the Little Brothers, knowing how deadly they are and how dangerous it is merely to come near them … he does not hesitate. Instead of acting like a child and refusing, he acts like an adult for the first time.
When he does so, the underlying mythic and symbolic threads of Indian Summer come together. “Indian Summer” not only refers to that tail-end bit of summer, when temperatures remind of July and August even though winter is just around the corner, but in this story it also refers to the last lingering days of childhood. Billy himself consciously recognizes that through his experiences he has become different; his life will never be the same: “Billy raised his head and nodded, deciding at that moment to stop acting like a little kid and face the consequences. Even if he couldn’t be a hero like Turok or Tarzan, he could admit what he … had done” (120).
Indian Summer, then, is a coming-of-age story in ways that the other installments in the mythos have not been. That is partially because, I think, more than Billy Crowell has changed.
I was thirteen in 1961, just a year older than Billy. I felt entirely at home in the world Hautala created for the boy, even though I grew up on the west coast rather than on the east and never had any encounters with strange creatures (although there was that time when I am convinced I saw a cougar in the forest…). His parents, his friends, his town — all seemed familiar to me. And like me, Billy had no idea that the 1960s were going to be any different than the 1950s had been.
But Rick Hautala knows what happened shortly after his story concludes, how an entire generation of boys and girls was forever altered by assassinations and wars, nuclear tests and civil unrest, missile crises and Russian threats. Billy Crowell could not know — but Rick Hautala does — that October 1961 was in some real senses an “Indian Summer,” that a certain innocence and naïveté were about to disappear. That is why, I think, this story ends as darkly as it does. The immediate threat is over … but although the adults pretend that everything is all right, that the strange marks they found were just those of an overly large bear, even they sense that whatever happened to Billy is not over. And the story ends, not in a re-entry into light and family, but in a descent into darkness…the “deepest shadows of the woods.”
Probably not every reader will respond to Indian Summer as deeply and as strongly as I did; perhaps my age and an undeniable nostalgia for long-past years had as much to do with my reaction as the words and illustrations themselves. Even so, it strikes me as a powerful story on multiple levels, one that generates introspection as it progresses through what is on the surface an action-adventure monster tale. Billy is memorable and his actions are significant to himself and to his readers; indeed, his exploits will lead readers directly into “Chrysalis,” set ten years later.