High Sierra Books / 301 pages / 1st edition (April 7, 1999)
How to classify this novel? Certainly, it is dark realism, but completely unlike any other book you will find in the genre. The horror is there, though subtle, and in a backdrop outside the normal, expected setting. Perhaps, it is opening an entire new genre; call it cowboy noir. That suits it.
Crowheart is the home and affliction of generations of the Daniels’ dynasty. The ranch rules the lonely expanse of the Wyoming prairie, influencing every person who comes near enough to be ensnared. Few, if any, escape its hold. Often, the desertion is final, the departure more permanent. Drastic action may well be the only exit that does not lead back to the ranch.
Isaac Daniels believes he has made good his escape, but Crowheart continues to haunt his every thought and feeling. He struggles to recreate himself, to exist in the outside world, and to make sense of the tragedies that pursue him. Laramie, he fears, is not far enough to break the spell.
Thomas Daniels, the youngest of the clan, keeps the ranch running, even as he longs to break away. Is he the most rational of the clan, or the closest to madness? With every character encountered, the line between sense and insanity becomes more difficult to perceive and more impossible not to cross.
Gist paints a dark landscape where the reader is aware nothing is as it should be and nothing is going to work out for the best. Crowheart may well be a satellite of Hell. Abandon all hope…
In large part, the tremendous power of the novel owes to Gist’s multi-dimensional characters. From the major players to the most obscure characters, every one is a distinct individual, springing whole from a few well-chosen words artfully employed. None is evil; none is innocent — each is a human being. Even the largest personality, that of the ranch, cannot be affixed a label.
Some readers may question including Crowheart in the category of horror. That’s understandable; no mutant creatures, serial killers, or vampires await just around every corner. The horror here is elusive and wholly conceivable, more appalling for its quiet, reasonable approach than any non-human monster could ever aspire to be. People. Plausible, possible participants in a situation of horror, not of supernatural origin, but of the darkness of the human soul. That description settles Crowheart solidly in the realm of dark realism.
It could be that the feasibility, the appearance of normalcy, the intimations of abominations just beyond sight, fuel the almost hypnotic grasp of this book. The dread strikes from the first words of the novel. But, though it is impossible to ignore the threat in every sentence, still the ghastly conclusion comes as more awful than we imagine.
Let Crowheart sneak up on you. Let it lure you into this world of shared madness. Experience the jolt of the all-too-conceivable. The mutant rat-beasts will still be waiting when you stumble out into the light again.