Title: The Cypress House
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 415 pages
Publication Date: 17/03/2011
Michael Koryta’s previous novel, So Cold The River [his first book to be published in the UK], was a completely brilliant supernatural mystery that was undoubtedly one of the best things – if not the best thing – that I read in 2010. Now his latest book, The Cypress House, threatens to be one of my favourites of 2011 – even though it’s still rather early in the year to be making such wild claims. What I’m trying to say, albeit in a rather circuitous and over-zealous manner, is that Koryta is quickly establishing himself as one of my favourite authors.
The year is 1935 [by which I mean in The Cypress House. I’m not quite that far gone that I don’t know what year we’re in!]. First World War veteran Arlen Vagner has a ‘gift’ – the ability to see the promise of death [which manifests itself, rather macabrely, in soon-to-be-dead people appearing to Arlen as smoky-eyed skeletons. Honestly, it’s scarier than I’ve managed to make it sound]. So when he is on a train bound for the Florida Keys, and sees the tell-tale signs in the faces and bodies of the men around him, Arlen does his utmost to convince them all to leave the train with him. Only one, nineteen-year-old Paul Brickhill, does. The rest stay on the train as it heads towards the devastating Labour Day hurricane that will soon hit the Keys …
Stuck in Corridor County, a swampy Florida backwater, Paul and Arlen’s path leads them to the mysterious Cypress House of the title – a remote inn next to the ocean, run by the spellbindingly beautiful and inscrutable Rebecca Cady. But, as they make a series of grisly discoveries, Arlen and Paul realise that things are not as they seem and that getting off the train might not have saved their lives …
Koryta is incredibly adept and assured as a writer, and wonderfully evokes the swampy, sweltering claustrophobia of the deeply corrupt Depression era Corridor County. You really get the feeling that this is a place where violence, evil and secrets lurk just below the surface and it makes reading this novel a clammily suspenseful experience. And the suspense is further heightened by the addition of the supernatural elements, which are threaded into the novel expertly and never feel obtrusive.
The protagonists – Arlen, Paul and Rebecca – are all believably flawed, each with their own secrets and flaws but still empathetic [although Rebecca is quite cold to start with]. The antagonists, by contrast, are suitably evil [especially the local judge, Solomon Wade], although it is a subtle kind of malevolence, one which makes them all the more terrifying because it isn’t too exaggerated.