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Wednesday, 02 November 2005 00:00

Harvey turns a supernatural eye to modern technology

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Something is out of joint in the little fishing village of Bareneed on the coast of Newfoundland. The rules that govern reality (natural laws) appear to have been suspended. It began with the flying fish. Of course, no one actually saw them fly, but they were found in roads, barn lofts and fields, still struggling fitfully as though the sea had rejected them. Their color was unnatural, too, ranging from red sculpin to blue cod and finally, an albino shark — all stuffed with roses and marvelous fragrances. At first, such abnormalities were treated with humor by the media, but then, the mood changed when the people of Bareneed begin to die for no discernable reason.

“It is as though they simply forget to breathe,” says the village’s perplexed Dr. Thompson.

Within days, the village’s abnormal occurrences increase alarmingly. When a large number of corpses are recovered from the bay, Bareneed discovers that the dead are the village’s ancestors, perfectly preserved and many dressed in the clothes of another century. The village’s dead have come home — the victims of ancient shipwrecks, storms and suicides. Perplexity turns to panic as the entire region is invaded by the military. Helicopters hover over the town as the dead continue to return and the local hospital is filled to capacity with patients who can only breath with a respirator. Military experts and medical specialists, determined to find a rational explanation for the weird events, subject the local citizenry to an endless round of curfews, surveillance and evaluations. The nightly news makes vague comments about possible pandemics and deadly infections.

Novelist Kenneth J. Harvey has created both a surreal setting and an appealing cast of characters who find themselves caught between two warring factions — science and the supernatural. Among the most interesting personalities in this suspenseful tale is Joseph Blackwood, unstable, overly medicated and recently divorced, who decides to bring his seven-year-old daughter, Robin, to Bareneed for a vacation. Within days, Blackwood begins to hallucinate and finds himself attracted to his pregnant neighbor, Claudia. Claudia has a daughter, Jessica, who becomes Robin’s playmate and companion. There is just one problem. Jessica is dead.

Then, there is Tommy Quilty, a retarded man who draws remarkable pictures of events before they happen. According to local folklore, Tommy was stolen by “the fairies” when he was a child. When he was returned, he had “second sight” and saw auras – the colors that surround all human bodies. Finally, there is Miss Laracy, a 110-year-old native of Bareneed who converses with spirits and seems equally comfortable with the living and the dead. She is also the only person in the village who knows what is happening — and why.

As fantastical creatures begin to rise from the sea, all the forces of modern science gather around the beleaguered village, probing the air and water in a desperate bid to make rational sense out of the events. Psychiatrists, specialists in mass hysteria, and experts in oceanography and virus infections conduct endless tests. Meanwhile, an old fisherman returns from a fishing trip talking about a copper-haired mermaid who greeted him in the fog off the coast.

“She be wicked naked,” he said in an awed whisper.

A military expert begins to issue warnings of an imminent tidal wave (tsunami) and recommends the immediate evacuation of Bareneed. Eerie lights flicker in the darkness over Bareneed and the tension mounts.

In a recent interview, author Kenneth Harvey fielded questions about The Town That Forgot to Breathe and discussed the film adaptation, which is currently under way. Harvey readily acknowledged that his purpose in writing this work went far beyond the creation of a spook story.

“My book is actually about the death of storytelling,” he said.

Harvey then discussed his belief that all of us are threatened by a fate similar to the people living in his mythical Bareneed. He went on to discuss how modern technology is eroding our sense of who we are. As we lose touch with our folklore and the rich, imaginative world of myth that was once a part of our shared culture, we are becoming like the people of Bareneed who stare at the doctors standing at their bedsides and ask, “Who or what am I?”

Perhaps poor Joseph Blackburn utters the most significant statement in this novel as he flees from a crowd of journalists and TV reporters. Standing in the doorway of his home, he hears them demanding to know what has caused the sickness that has struck this village. Joseph stares at them for a moment and then says, “You are the sickness.” Then, he steps inside and closes the door. Indeed, television seems sinister in this novel. It is everywhere — in hospital rooms, homes and stores — and the people staring at the flickering screens seem to be hostages waiting patiently to be told what to think, believe, purchase and ponder.

That is a little scary, isn’t it? You may not feel the same way about our world of technology when you finish this book.

The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey. 
Saint Martin’s Press, 2005. 
$24.95 – 471 pages

 

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