What Happens in Skillute… with S.P. Miskowski’s Astoria

Astoria CoverS.P. Miskowski is a newer writer who’s quickly built a significant reputation in the genre, via her interconnected books Knock Knock and Delphine Dodd.  Both have received many plaudits, with the latter short-listed for a Shirley Jackson award.  The following review quotation is particularly notable to me because I frequently share Peter Tennant’s *tastes*:

“I rate Delphine Dodd as the best novella I read in 2012, and Knock Knock as the best book I read in any category.” —Peter Tennant, Black Static

Impressive words, indeed.

Coming off of those two earlier successes, Miskowski has again gone from strength to strength with her follow-up, the novella Astoria (Omnium Gatherum Books, 2013). As with her earlier two books, Miskowski’s latest is again set (at least partially) in the small town of Skillute, Washington, a fictional town with a boatload of baggage, both natural and supernatural.

At the eye of the storm in Astoria is Ethel Sanders, a character who figured in Knock Knock.  The victim of an abusive childhood that she’s never been able to escape, Ethel is now a middle-aged wife and mom who’s plagued by the actions of her daughter, the cruel and seemingly psychopathic Connie Sara.  Ethel’s existence has become a bottomless pit of misery, as she lives in fear of Connie Sara’s latest crimes while barely enduring her forever-in-denial husband, Burt.  When a local boy, Winston, disappears, Ethel strongly believes that Connie Sara has moved beyond animal abuse to human targets:

Ethel and Burt had agreed to so many deals just to get through each day, compromising, making allowances. Finally they allowed the girl to take over in a way that would be inexcusable if they’d had any self-respect. Their friends had stopped calling. Their neighbors had stayed away. Their house grew dark and they kept their voices down, while the thing they had brought into the world wandered the countryside at night. Restless and filled with hatred, it had killed animals for pleasure. It had killed that little boy, Winston, and who could say how much more damage it was responsible for?

Everything changes when Connie Sara dies unexpectedly, leaving Ethel guilt-ridden for feeling more relieved than sad over her daughter’s passing. At the funeral, Ethel is struck by hallucinations that serve to illuminate just how unreliable of a narrator she is:

In the light, Connie Sara stretched her arms out, reaching for Ethel. Dirt stained her clothes. Blood dripped from her hands. Something was wrong with her eyes. They were blue-gray but smeared with a dark substance like charcoal.

Ethel watched. Convulsive waves of panic ran through her.

Connie Sara’s bruised lips drew taut, smiling or mocking, she couldn’t tell. When the girl lifted one hand and placed a bloody index finger over her lips, Ethel turned away and began to walk as quickly as she could.

After dreaming for years of running away and leaving everything behind her, Ethel’s cemetery visions finally drive her to do just that. She speeds away from the graveyard, unsure of where she’s headed but determined to flee, until she finally gets the idea to hide out for a while in nearby Astoria.

Entering Astoria, Ethel is struck by the image of another driver, leaving town, a scene that foreshadows the ramped-up strangeness that’s soon to come:

…she saw that the driver of the other Tercel was a woman, probably at least fifty, wearing sunglasses and a scarf. In every respect the woman was the exact image of Ethel herself, and as they passed one another the woman looked out her window, so that they held one another’s gaze for a second. The similarity between them gave Ethel a chill. In another instant it was over.

Finding an ad for a house-sitter, Ethel believes she’s struck upon the perfect way to lay low, even though the identity and backstory that she concocts for herself is ridiculously flimsy.  Her meeting with the homeowner, James Bevin, goes well — too well, it seems — and Ethel gets the job, convinced that she and Bevin have connected on some instinctual level.

After he departs, Bevin’s influence continues to resonate with Ethel, and a young boy claiming to be Bevin’s son comes knocking on her door, although it gradually dawns on Ethel that the boy might actually be someone else entirely.  In view of all the stress Ethel has endured, it seems unsurprising that her loss of touch with reality begins to accelerate. When it happens, there’s a tendency for the reader to empathize with her, even as the surreal events continue to pile up.

Through it all, the narrative stays tightly focused on Ethel’s perspective, and the reader is forced to witness, with some dismay and discomfort, the bizarre associations, rationalizations, and thoughts of persecution running through Ethel’s mind.

There is much that is strange and unsettling in Astoria.  In fact, in the latter stages of the story, there is almost nothing that isn’t strange and unsettling.  Miskowski crafts her tale with a confident, assured hand, resulting in a heart-wrenching portrait of a desperate woman’s slide into insanity.

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