One woman’s long strange trip in search of her true identity
There is a genre of fiction that might well be called “tourism horror.” In such stories, the protagonist travels to a breathtakingly attractive destination, where all hell breaks loose. The masterpieces of the genre are surely Dracula (oh, Transylvania!) and The Shining (talk about a “last resort” hotel). Enter debut novelist Wendy Webb, who gives both Bram Stoker and Stephen King a run for their travel budget, inventing an island in the Great Lakes that can’t be matched for pristine natural beauty, richness of history, touristic amenities . . . and sheer supernatural terror.
One reason why The Tale of Halcyon Crane deserves a place in the canon of tourism horror is its initial twist of the emotional knife: the traumatic discovery that forces our heroine, Hallie James, to make her journey to Great Manitou Island. Ghosts, violent death, witches—none of these terrible presences on the island hold a frightful candle to the psychological devastation at the outset of the novel, when Hallie finds out that she is not the person she thought she was—and neither is her father, nor her mother, nor anything she has ever believed about her family. This internal horror outdistances the merely external threats imposed by Stoker and King.
The emotional impact of the island’s heart of darkness on Webb’s heroine also stands in complete contrast to the way things usually go in the genre. In Dracula and The Shining (or Heart of Darkness, for that matter), the hero or heroine is possessed by the horror, is undone by it and made monstrous. But in The Tale of Halcyon Crane, Hallie James confronts the horror and takes possession of herself, entering into her authentic identity, with all its difficulties intact.
The novel’s affirmative spirit may not be to the taste of diehard horror fans, but it certainly gives a more generous account of how the spirit of a beautiful place can complexly affect a human being, for both good and ill. Wendy Webb is a professional journalist, first and foremost. Like those journalistic masters Dickens and Twain before her, she knows that to write good travel prose, you must give a vivid account of both the demons you find along the way and the demons you bring along with you. That way, the reader always feels right at home.
Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.