My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Timothy Huguenin’s book When the Watcher Shakes is a solid debut novel by a solid new writer. The story explores a cultic, isolated town hidden in an Appalachian valley and is told with an easy confidence. Huguenin has a good handle on the tools of the craft: the writing is clear and precise, and the straightforward tone and pacing kept me reading even when the characters themselves felt at times a bit unrealistic. I was still turning pages up to the very conclusion of the novel, and apart from a few very minor typos, the work was artfully done. My main disappointments, outlined below, were in the depiction of the characters and in ultimately unsettled questions.
Abestown is a walled city in a forest, governed by a council of Historians and overseen by a sinister Head Historian who keep the inhabitants in line with threats of strange creatures beyond the walls (akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village). The town is governed in a stranger, more metaphysical way by the clocktower dominating its center. We see the town through the perspective of John, a hapless, easy-going wanderer who sights the town from a nearby highway and decides to investigate, despite having met Jerry, an old man who grew up in the town and departed but now lives on the mountain overlooking. Once inside the town, where the inhabitants are polite but suspicious, John’s inquisitive personality influence the thinking of Isaac, the town janitor and “watcher” of the title. Eventually and inevitably, John’s destabilizing influence transforms life within the town.
Huguenin puts all of the elements in place for a darkly unsettling mystery, and his writing style and skill is enough to clinch it, which make it disappointing when the hidden nature of the town is never truly revealed and the spectacular confrontations built toward (for example, between the Head Historian and Isaac) never are quite carried through. There are plenty of hints of darker things afoot—in the nature of the clocktower itself, for instance, which seems to predate the town itself in some ways, and in the supernatural strength of Rob Kai, the Head Historian— but these mysteries are never explored. Perhaps Huguenin is setting the stage for further work in which the history of Abestown, will be further developed. But if that’s the case, there are no obvious hooks that leave the reader on the line for another installment. Instead, we’re left to drift away from the walls and their mysteries like Lisa, the only character in the work who truly finds freedom.
These things were disappointing because of their potential. If the novel had been weaker, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so troubling, but When the Watcher Shakes was rife with interesting things popping up that were never followed out. One of the first things John notices in the town, for instance, is that he clearly hears the whistle of a passing train but none of the other townsfolk hear it. We come to realize that the council somehow has such a hold over the town that whatever the council declares to exist or not exist shapes the way the rest of the town experiences reality. (This gives rise to some clever wordplay, for example when Isaac realizes that when the train whistles he hears nothing, and that he has heard nothing several times before.) Again though, besides the power of suggestion, this is never fully explored—and the mysterious train that first gave John some understanding of how strange the town really was is never addressed either (though it is where John meets his ultimate, grizzly fate).
The town’s isolation is also never fully explored, and it gave rise to a few strange paradoxes in the novel. For instance, we learn that the newcomer’s name is one “Abe would approve of,” indicating Biblical names are probably preferred. There are other Biblical names as well (Isaac and Obadiah, for instance), but there are several more modern names: Lisa, Rob, and Jerry, for starters. The inhabitants of the town don’t know what trucks or cocoa are, but there is a restaurant in the town that serves “deer burgers,” and Rob, the primary villain, on several occasions refers to other characters as “punks.” Moreover, for a town that insists to live in such isolation and believes outsiders like John pose such a threat, the ease with which John first found the town and wandered into it seemed far too convenient.
The primary weakness of When the Watcher Shakes though was the characters’ impotence in enacting any real change in their circumstances. John seemed laughably naive and oblivious to his own danger in his insistence that an easy-going nature would get everything weird about the town sorted out. Isaac was a bit more developed, and it seemed he would become the hero to actually stand up to Rob, the Head Historian. He eventually did, but this confrontation was ultimately futile, and Rob was only destroyed by an accidental fluke. There was no final confrontation in which the masks came off and truths about the town were revealed. The only real crisis overcome by a character changing and overcoming odds was when Lisa, the abused wife of the Head Historian stood up to him to defend Isaac at his trial, but even that lacked an ultimate resolution between Rob and Lisa. (As an aside: the attitude of the town/cult leader to the women in his community was an obvious generalization hit upon heavily in the work.)
For all that though, Huguenin’s writing was strong enough to make Abestown feel like a real place and the characters come to life. Though portions of the narrative seemed a bit contrived, the terseness of the prose itself kept the overall story gripping. When the Watcher Shakes is an example of a writer setting out to create, testing his narrative grasp, and finding it true. I look forward to his next offering, and I hope it rises to the challenges his own stories set forth.