The Magdalena Curse
Thomas Dunne Books
Hardcover, 336 pages, $25.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
The Magdalena Curse is a fascinating and frustrating novel. Author F.G. Cottam is superb in creating atmosphere and finely etched characters. Yet the book’s initial tension, with its promise of a potentially terrifying conclusion, isn’t maintained. It is almost as though Cottam backed away from the intensity. The climax and denouement elicit a banal whisper instead of a gasp of utter horror.
The novel’s premise is a staple of dark fiction: The possessed child. Adam Hunter is predictably extraordinarily bright, precocious, and good looking; which, of course, heightens the heinous aspect of his plight. His father Mark is a Special Ops veteran; highly capable of handling himself in most situations. His Achilles’ heel is his son. When Adam starts having nightmares and speaking in unfamiliar voices and foreign languages, a physician is called. Dr. Elizabeth Bancroft is a healer in multiple senses of the word, being a descendent of witches. The emotional baggage that comes with the lineage is far heavier than her doctor’s bag. Villagers viciously vandalize her home; making disgusting references to a heritage she has sought to keep at bay. When she enters the Hunter household it somewhat serves as a haven from malicious mischief; yet it has its own hellish afflictions. After Elizabeth spends a couple of uneventful hours overseeing Adam, there is an unnerving change in the boy: “He was seated upright on the bed. His mouth was stretched in a pantomimic leer. His long hair had been twisted into two careful plaits and there was a look of cunning and wariness in his eyes so dismaying on the face of a ten-year-old child that her own hand rose to cover her open mouth at the shock of it.”
The quote brings to mind a blending of The Exorcist, without its excesses, and The Turn of the Screw, with more bite. Unfortunately, the horrors pertaining to the Adam’s suffering don’t escalate to a satisfying build up. The bad dreams continue with brief respites, but the sense of endangerment gets lost in a miasma of misplaced back stories. The histories of the characters, while significant to the narrative, come at odd intervals. Their placement distracts and detracts from the focus on an unfortunate innocent manipulated by malign forces. A snarky sadist could sum it up, thus: The kid doesn’t get put through the wringer enough. More precisely, an edgy sense of apprehension gets muted by lapses in maintaining it.
One of the strengths of The Magdalena Curse is detailed atmosphere; encompassing locales in the Scottish Highlands, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria, and England. Also striking are the arresting personages who populate the book’s pages. The villainess is venal and vile: In her lengthy life she’s embraced the Nazi Party, and partied with Wolfmen. Incredibly beautiful and capable of spellbinding those in her company, she is a ferocious foe: “He was beginning to appreciate the incredible power of seduction she possessed. The house was dismal with menace in her absence. Her willing presence was all that must make it tolerable for her guests. More than tolerable, they found it thrilling. She dazzled and toyed with them.”
When at his philosophical and moody best, F.G. Cottam captures the essence and aura of the curse referred to in the title: “He was overwhelmed now by a feeling remembered from then, from Bolivia, the feeling that nothing was mundane or innocuous or really solid in the world. Certainties were built on shifting sand. Malice lurked wherever the light did not burn brightly. It was overwhelming and depressing and it was frightening. Worst of all, this feeling, this suspicion, was defeating.”
Perhaps, so as not to give in to what is “defeating,” The Magdalena Curse steps back from a full frontal assault on what profoundly terrifies; as if afraid to penetrate too deep. The result is a work that scratches the surface of imbedded fears, but metaphorically stops short of drawing blood.