The Omnivorous Reader
Mysteries of the Swamp
A supernatural risk for John Hart
By D.G. Martin
John Hart, who grew up in Salisbury, is the author of five New York Times best-sellers, The King of Lies (2006), Down River (2007), The Last Child (2009), Iron House (2011) and Redemption Road (2016).
Both The King of Lies and Down River won Edgar Awards, making Hart the only author to win this prestigious award for consecutive novels. He has a bag full of other honors, including the Barry Award, the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Award for Fiction, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, the Southern Book Prize, and the North Carolina Award for Literature.
Hart declares his favorite of all these successes is the The Last Child. So it should come as no surprise that his latest, The Hush, is a sequel to that book.
Readers of The Last Child met Johnny Merriman as a 13-year-old, followed his search for his missing sister and his traumatic childhood, and came to know his troubled friend Jack. In The Hush, as Hart explained to me recently, Johnny “is living alone in the wilds of this swampy area called the Hush, which is an abbreviation for Hush Arbor, an area of 6,000 acres of rough, mostly swampland. Johnny is the owner. It is the remnant of a 40,000-acre tract that his family owned in the 1800s.
“He is withdrawn from society and lives in the swamp, by himself. His only connection to humanity really is his buddy Jack, from The Last Child. Jack is now a young attorney in town in his first week in practice when the book opens. It’s what he’s always wanted to do, to take control of his tumultuous life and get that kind of logic and reason, wrap his hands around that and live by those standards.
“But it becomes very difficult for him because the more time he spends with Johnny in the Hush, the more he begins to fear that things are not as they should be. There are mysterious things afoot in the swamp, terrifying things, dangerous things that Johnny is unwilling to talk about.
“Jack pushes, Johnny is recalcitrant, so part of the tension in the story is what grows between these two best friends as Johnny clearly is guarding some sort of secret that terrifies his best friend, and he flat out refuses to discuss it. That’s a big part of the book, what’s going on in the Hush.”
Hart introduces existence of the supernatural powers in the Hush gently. After a terrible fall from a rocky cliff on the property, Johnny is cut, bruised and bloody. Back in town for a quick visit, Johnny allows his stepfather, Clyde, to bind up these serious wounds, and then hurries to leave and go back to the Hush.
Clyde says, “You want to go, I know. I can see that, too. It’s always Hush Arbor, always the land. Just tell me one thing before you leave. Help me understand. Why do you love it so much?”
Hart writes, “He meant the silence and the swamp, the lonely hills and endless trees. On the surface it was a simple question, but Johnny’s past had branded him in a way few could ignore: the things he’d believed and leaned upon, the way he’d searched so long for his sister. If Johnny spoke now, of magic, they’d think him confused or insane or trapped, somehow, in the delusions of a difficult past. Without living it, no one could grasp the truth of Hush Arbor. Johnny wouldn’t want them to if they could.”
But some part of that magic is revealed to Jack when he visits Johnny in the Hush a few days later. Although Clyde had described Johnny’s horrible wounds, they were not apparent to Jack. Johnny “was shirtless and still and flawless. There wasn’t a mark on him.”
The reader who might have expected the usual John Hart thriller is on alert. Magic and the supernatural are going to play a big role in this saga.
Unraveling and understanding the source and the reasons for this magical power on the land provide the spine on which Hart builds this book.
But as the book begins, Johnny faces another serious challenge, a non-magical one. His title to his land is being challenged by a member of an African-American family who lived on the land for many years and whose claim is based on a deed from 1853. Johnny’s legal claim is sound, but he used all his money to pay prior legal fees. Now, although he owns thousands of acres of land, cash-wise he is broke. So he wants his friend, the brand-new attorney Jack, to represent him.
He tries to persuade Jack to fight his legal battles. But Jack’s law firm forbids him from taking on Johnny as a client. Instead, the firm hopes to represent a wealthy out-of-town money manager and hunter who wants to force Johnny to sell his land, or failing that, find another way to acquire it. Why? The hunting in and near the Hush is dangerous, exciting, and promises the possibility of extraordinary game. When that man is mysteriously killed while hunting in the Hush, Johnny becomes a prime murder suspect. Meanwhile, some members of the African-American family that lived on the land show magical powers, especially while they are in the Hush. Traumatic events in 1853 involving Johnny’s slave-owning ancestors and those of the African-American enslaved family still cause trouble on the land.
Hart’s imaginative resolution of these troubles brings the book to a powerful and violent conclusion.
But there is a risk here for Hart. His prior books have, with only one minor exception, held to the standard rules for thriller writers. Those rules call for the mysteries to be solved without the aid of magic or the supernatural.
Hart is betting that the richness of his characters, his compelling storytelling, and the story’s supernatural landscape will hold his thriller fans despite breaking his old rules. Taking this risk, he hopes, will expand his appeal and share his storytelling talent with an even wider audience.
Taking risks, even those with high stakes, is not a new activity for Hart.
In fact, he seems to thrive on risk. For instance, he gave up his job as a stockbroker about 15 years ago to complete his first novel. That risk-taking paid off when The King of Lies became a best-seller in 2006.
Then Hart, after a string of three more successful books, risked upsetting his working routine by moving with his wife and two young children from Greensboro to Charlottesville, Virginia. Although the move disrupted his writing program for several years, it finally led to Redemption Road, which became a critical and commercial success. His completion of The Hush shows that Hart is fully back on his game.
Now, will the risk of making the supernatural an integral part of his work pay off for him?
Nothing is for sure.
However, the complex and rich stories in The Hush and the book’s supernatural but satisfying conclusion suggest that he is again on the right track. OH
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.