All Things Cease to Appear
By Elizabeth Brundage
Elizabeth Brundage has accomplished something not easily done: blended together mysticism, psychopathy, a bad marriage, a haunted house, a historical art movement, and literary trappings into a credible tale of lunacy. The thrills and chills don’t come from discovering who did the dastardly deed, as we know that from the opening. Rather, they derive from watching a very sick man wear down his unhappy and bewildered wife to the inevitable end, as well as witnessing his beguiling, brassy, and deadly trickery. For the right readers, those who appreciate in-depth character development more than fast-paced plotting and a riotous ending, it will be a most satisfying experience. Though even these readers may find the ending not exactly what they would like.
George Clare and his wife, Catherine, meet in New York City, while doing post graduate work. George, an art historian, specializes in the Hudson River School, holding a particular fascination for George Inness (1825-1894), an artist who added mysticism to his work as a result of assenting to the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), an influential and prolific exponent of mystical Christianity. Brundage skillfully weaves these mystical views throughout the book, imbuing the novel with a certain eeriness, especially in conjunction with the history of Hale house. The couple’s relationship isn’t the best but when she announces her pregnancy George does the right thing, as he boasts, and marries her. They have a daughter they name Franny. When Franny grows into a toddler, George decides they must move out of the city to upstate New York, where he secures a position as a prof at a small liberal arts college. There they find an abandoned farm that goes into foreclosure, which he gets for a steal. From the beginning, even before she knows what happened in the house, she senses a spiritual presence.
This is Hale house, and a murder-suicide occurred in the master bedroom that Catherine and George occupy. Readers learn what happened and why and the effect it had on the Hale boys, Eddy, Cole, and Wade. Their parents died in the bedroom by action of their despairing mother when she reached the end of her tether living with her abusive husband. This George keeps secret from Catherine, one of many secrets, until she discovers it later in the novel. The Hale boys, all teens, can’t keep away from the house and the out buildings on the—their—property. They eventually get to know Catherine, who hires them to help fix up the place, and to have Cole babysit Franny. These relationships deepen, especially those between her, Eddy, and Cole.
George seems to do well at the college, that is until truths about his academic history begin to present themselves, the most damaging of which is his falsified doctorate. But before this surfaces, he appears to establish good relations with his department chair, as well as some faculty members. He also meets a troubled young woman, Willis, a refuge from her college in California and her successful but morally questionable criminal attorney father in New York City. While psychologically abusing his wife, he takes up with Willis, who he at first prizes for her youth and intellectual spirit. Before long, however, once she needs him, he grows dominating, possessive, and abusive.
George exhibits some classic sociopathic traits, primary here, his remorselessness, his inner coldness, his manipulativeness, and his ability to mimic emotion. However, when pushed, as he finds himself later by his department chair and his faculty friend, his survival instincts kick in. With his wife Catherine, these slowly escalate over the course of the novel to their inevitable conclusion. Readers learn about George’s tendency through his own inner dialogue, his actions, and both Catherine’s and Willis’ observations and reactions, a march from sociopathy to full-blown psychopathy. Nicely rendered, this is, by Brundage.
SPOILER ALERT: you may not want to go further if you intend to read the book, for following is a discussion of the ending.
Most of the novel transpires at the time of the Hale murder-suicide and Catherine’s murder. Then the novel moves forward just over twenty years. Here readers learn that George, crafty psycho that he is, has thwarted the murder investigation, not to mention keeping his other murders hidden. No one, including Franny, knows who killed Catherine, though most have their suspicions. Now a young surgical resident, Franny returns to clean out the house, which her father has finally sold. At the house, she comes to terms with her own suspicions and refuses to have anything to do with her father ever again.
He is enfeebled, going blind, living in a nursing home. The final straw for him is a communication from the past, Willis, that tells him he will be prosecuted for murder. He decides to end things himself and drags his weakened self to the docks to sail his boat, a gift from the unaware wife of one of his victims. In other words, George, as he was throughout the novel, remains in control of his destiny; what some may feel to be less than his just deserts. Is justice really served? Some may not feel it has been. Personally, though, the ending feels organic, a fitting end, one that leaves you wondering how hard Brundage had to fight to keep her vision intact. w/c