The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
SHADOW OF ASHLAND
Terence M. Green
Forge Books, NY, 1996, 221 pages, $US17.95, $Cdn24.95, hardcover
(ISBN 0 312 85958 9)
Terry Green is one of those hidden literary treasures. Heís not particularly prolific and all too often his books are published with far less fanfare than they deserve, but whenever a short story of his appears in a magazine, or a new novel at oneís local bookstore, discerning readers know to grab it quickly and then savor it with many rereadings.
A quick look at my own bookshelf shows only a depressing few inches devoted to his work, but whatís there is of high quality. His short story collection, The Woman Who is the Midnight Wind (Pottersfield Press, 1987), is a gem of a book without a bad story in it. Barking Dogs (St. Martinís Press), following in 1988, was a gritty, streetwise near-future thriller that, if it didnít precede the eventual cyberpunk movement, certainly was exploring a similar territory in its own right. Lastly came Children of the Rainbow (McClelland & Stewart, 1992), a contemporary novel of time travel, speculation and wonder that takes as its starting point the problems of descendents of the Bountyís mutineers, and then spreads out to encompass far more universal concerns.
Now, finally, thereís a new book to add its inch to Greenís section in my library, and while itís a somewhat slender volume, it more than makes up for its brevity with its quality. Loosely based on a short work, "Ashland, Kentucky," Shadow of Ashland gives, within just a few pages, credence to my long-held belief that Green is certainly one of Canadaís finest writers, and soon to be considered one of North Americaís.
The plot is deceptively simple. Protagonist Leo Nolan promises his mother on her deathbed that he will try to find her brother, Nolanís own Uncle Jack who went down to the States during the Great Depression, sent one letter home, and then was never heard from again. Nolanís mother dies before he can fulfill his promise, but he continues the search anyway. Things get a little eerie when fifty-year-old letters from Jack begin to show up at Nolanís fatherís house and Nolan decides to take some vacation time and travels down to Ashland, Kentucky, the last address he has for his uncle. And therein lies the story.
For while Nolan is in Ashland, letters continue to arrive at his fatherís house. In Ashland, Nolan tracks down the boarding house where his uncle lived and at that point the veil between the past and the present begins to unravel. The more Nolan learns about his uncle, the more questions arise.
Nolanís search for his uncle isnít all that the bookís about, fascinating though it is. Nolanís also on the rebound from a failed marriage and the premature death of his son and thereís a moving and insightful subplot dealing with that. The prose throughout the book is straightforward and simple, without being simplistic or flat, but at the same time, Green pens moments of such pristine clarity, so perfectly describing a mood, a detail, that the words seem to sing from the page. Throughout the novel, characters, settings, motivations, the past, the present, all come alive and reverberate against each other, and while Nolan isnít necessarily Everyman, his struggle and concerns are universal.
Shadow of Ashland belongs in the same select company as Alan Brennertís Time and Chance or Ken Grimwoodís Replay, novels in which an unexplained, and unexplainable, phenomenon becomes a catalyst for an exploration of and a deeper understanding of human nature, rather than existing for its own sake. And because of that focus on how the phenomenon changes lives and perceptions, it takes on an even deeper resonance and sense of mystery itself. Fascinating stuff.