It all begins with the death of a twelve-year-old boy at a summer camp.
Or perhaps not. The Wildman opens with a warning against facile preconceptions about beginnings and closes with an equivalent caution about conclusions:
Pre-conditions can be set, and there are always unseen forces in motion long before we become aware of them. It’s rather egocentric or, we might say, “human-centric” to declare that anything starts at any particular point in time simply because that’s when we first notice it.
And we should never forget that there are always things we don’t know, buried secrets that might eventually come to light with or without our help. Like it or not, there are things that will knock us down before we see them coming. (7)
In a sense, that is the key — the core — to The Wildman. On the surface, the story is straightforward. Five friends from thirty-five years earlier agree to an October reunion at the derelict Camp Tapiola on Sheep’s Head Island in Lake Onwego. They are the survivors of a small group that had shared a tent during summer camp; the sixth boy, Jimmy Foster, had drowned that fateful year.
Or had he been murdered?
When Jeff Cameron and the others arrive at what remains of Camp Tapiola, their weekend begins with apparent congeniality that barely disguises underlying tensions and stress. As the hours pass — accompanied by storms and biting cold — tensions become anxiety and finally terror as Jeff realizes that something is definitely wrong on Sheep’s Head Island.
Then the murders begin.
Stranded at night in the bitter cold, Jeff must confront an armed enemy intent upon revenge. He must plumb secrets long-hidden in the past … and in the silence of his friends. He must bear up under the increasing burdens of fear, terror, and isolation. He must seek desperately to understand the realities behind the legendary Hobomonk, said to roam the island seeking prey. And ultimately he must summon his only hope … the Wildman.
There are many excellences in The Wildman. Action, suspense, threat, hints of the supernatural, a character who is quite literally not given a chance to take a long, restful breath. And they all work together to create a solid, tight story.
But perhaps the most interesting of them is the landscape … a character in and of itself. An isolated, essentially deserted island in a bitter northeastern storm, its present abandoned state is skillfully superimposed over powerful memories of it as a vibrant, joy-filled summer camp, until sudden death put an end to all of that.
I never attended a summer camp as a pre-teen, but I worked for several summers as a counselor at a scout camp in the Sierras. We weren’t on an island, but there was no easy overland way to get to the main camp, so all back-and-forth traffic was by boat across a frequently ice-cold lake. In some senses, we were as isolated as if we had been on an island.
Several years later, I visited the place. Storms had destroyed the dining hall; several landmarks were missing or dismantled; even the trails were different.
But … setting foot on the landing for the first time in years, I breathed the smells of the forest, heard the subtle sounds of life (back when I could hear). And that was the feeling — the sense of return, however much the place had changed — that Hautala captures almost perfectly when Jeff finally arrives at the remains of Camp Tapiola.
From that point on, Hautala convinces me that the place is real, that key events occurred there thirty-five years before, and that unraveling its secrets would lie at the center of the story. Everything — from the battered infirmary; to the oddly shaped but aptly named rock formation, “The Pulpit,” where perhaps much more than fishing took place; to the bit of beach that still harbors the lingering image of a boy’s body; to the false comfort of flames in a stone fireplace — everything lends its magic to the narrative, supporting the characters in each detail.
The Wildman is a quick read and a good one. It is solid storytelling by a master of atmosphere and setting.