Nathan Dinneck has returned home as the pastor of the Baptist church he grew up in. Unfortunately he has brought with him recurring nightmares of a long march to a sacrificial altar; nightmares that have begun to bleed into his waking life. He has also returned home to find his parent’s relationship strained due to his father having turned from church and into the arms of the somewhat shady Hillcrest Men’s Club lead by the sinister Peter Quinn. Thus begins Solomon’s Grave by Daniel G. Keohane, a finalist for the 2009 Stoker Award for First Novel.
The template for Keohane’s novel lends it on the one hand a prodigal son vibe while on the other it ties undeniably with the countless films and stories embodying the classic cliche about returning home only to find that you can’t really go home again. Solomon’s Grave includes a bevy of other familiar notes: a sleepy New England town, a lost love, ties to the ancient past, and a sinister organization with ties to the criminal underworld (and the underworld underworld). It’s all there but carefully constructed within a solid framework of biblical history and judeo-christian theology.
My main issue with Solomon’s Grave is that it reveals a bit too much too fast so it never really builds an overarching atmosphere of fear or dread. With the novel split into several sections buffered by sojourns into the Crusades it becomes fairly obvious (or so one thinks) what the “secret” being protected is and the villains of the story are revealed outright pretty early in the proceedings. Indeed, the novel seems predisposed against maintaining an air of mystery at all. There are still several scenes, including the climax, that manage to convey a tangible threat of physical, and spiritual threat to the characters.
As Lovecraft puts it the supernatural tales must contain:
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
But what if those “unknown forces” are countered with a known, if not necessarily quantifiable, source? In the case of Solomon’s Grave that is exactly what happens. While the threat of the novel is most certainly a malign and powerful force the carefully constructed faith and overt hand of God in the events of the hero’s life subverts the supernatural threat. In a novel in which Christian theology is accepted as real providing an outside threat is difficult since, given that the constraints of the novel assert the truth of a Christian God, no outside threat can trump that truth (did that even make sense?). The weak point then, as in many a Bible tale, is the man (such as the titular Solomon). Unfortunately, for Solomon’s Grave Keohone goes slightly too far in casting Nathan Dinneck as a paragon of faith and virtue. Reverend Dinneck is the exact anithesis of ‘Salems Lot’s doubting Father Callahan, the Reverend never once doubting the power of his faith and his conviction in God remains an unwavering constant throughout the novel.
None of that makes Solomon’s Grave a bad novel. Indeed Dinneck’s relationship with God and his family and friends are one of the novel’s strongest points and, while Dinneck’s faith might never wane the tension generated by less certain faith of those around, especially in the face of the novel’s threats, makes for some particularly gripping reading. However Solomon’s Grave certainly functions less well as a novel of supernatural horror; it’s ultimate message one that seems to reinforce the message of hope and redemption that embodies the Christian faith a fact that, for this reader at least, stands counterpoint to the atmosphere of hopelessness and dread that defines horror as a genre.