Review: The Siren and The Specter by Jonathan Janz

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been anticipating the launch of Flame Tree Press for a good while now, not least of which because it meant brand new books from Jonathan Janz and Hunter Shea. Both authors launched their careers at the now-ancient history Samhain Publishing, and while both have found publishers elsewhere since that publisher's collapse in 2016, it feels good to have them reunited beneath a common imprint and the guiding hand of editor Don D'Auria. I've been waiting for a new Janz novel ever since finishing Exorcist Falls early last year, so turning toward The Siren and The Specter as my inaugural read of Flame Tree Press was a no-brainer.

As expected, Janz delivers a fun, gruesome, and highly compelling read that happily kept me up past my bed-time on a few occasions because I absolutely had to know what would happen next. This is a good and true "just one more chapter!" kind of read.

Noted skeptic and supernatural debunker David Caine is invited by an old college buddy to stay for a time in the Alexander House, the most haunted house in all of Virginia. Built in the 1700s, its owner, Judson Alexander, was the worst sort of man, one who held the village around the Rappahannock River in an iron fist, raping and killing at a whim. His house was a source of bloodshed and torture for a number of those villagers, the land tainted forever. David rightfully expects the urban legends surrounding the Alexander House to be rubbish, but even he can't deny the quiet ache of his own personal losses that being back by the Rappahannock causes. As events unfold, David's skepticism is put to the test and soon enough the Rappahannock will run red with blood.

The Siren and The Specter has a lot going for it. As the title indicates, you get not one, but two - two! - supernatural entities to torment our lead protagonist. You also get a fair amount of carnage, a host of depraved sex acts, and a number of ghostly encounters that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. One of the best parts, though, was the sense of history Janz imbues the Alexander House and its surrounding region with, a history that is deeply personal to David and the peninsula where this book is set. The country is young, but the land is old, and the pre-colonial mythology surrounding the titular siren was a welcome counterpoint to the horrors inflicted by Alexander upon his neighbors. What struck me most, though, was the historical interplay between the siren and the specter themselves. Although these are two distinct entities in the mythology of the Rappahannock, both are fueled at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of both their gender and their bloodlust, one a victim and the other a victimizer. Janz slowly reveals the stories of each in highly compelling ways, using the dual spirits to illustrate mankind's proclivity toward wrath, cruelty, and the possession of others.

I'll confess that on first blush, I wasn't entirely sold on the siren's involvement in terms of this book's plot. Initially, it felt like a bit of unnecessary overreach, even a minor element that could have been cut without any detriment to the work. After some consideration, though, I find myself appreciating the thematic importance of the siren more and more, and the things she represents for David as he is forced to reconsider his skepticism toward the supernatural. There's a strong sense of duality at play in this book, and as a figure herself the siren is emblematic of several things in terms of both plot and character. The Siren and the Specter is very firmly rooted in the Gothic tradition, which demands readers to use their imagination, suspend their disbelief, and accept that there are more mysteries in this world than we can possibly understand. Judson Alexander is the most in-your-face mystery that both David and the reader must confront, but Janz asks us to accept just a little bit more than that as we carry along, challenging us to confront our own skepticism alongside David and accept some additional horrors and wonders beyond Alexander. Both are integral to David and his personal evolution during his stay on the peninsula. And after all, if we can accept the specter, why not the siren?

While there are plenty of Gothic traditions on display here - the fallen hero, death and romance, loss and terror, an emphasis on sexuality, dashes of political violence, an atmosphere of dread, a focus on the architecture of the Alexander House - in the end, it's this broadening of imagination that proves most fascinating and compelling. In fact, there's a lot about The Siren and The Specter that fascinates, from the character dynamics and their relationships to Alexander, the perversions of the Shelby family, David's struggles to be a better man and the appreciable easiness of those around him to call him out on his foolishness, and, of course, Janz's flair for violence. Janz is not the type of author who gets squeamish writing about blood and guts, and he clearly enjoys splashing around in gore with all the delight of a mad sadist. This is a big win for horror fans, and even when you know certain macabre acts are just a page away, he still manages to pull off a few surprises in each of the big reveals.

It's clear why Flame Tree Press chose The Siren and The Specter as one of their launch titles, and it's a delicious springboard into this new imprint. I suspect this book will also (rightfully) earn Janz a legion of new and devoted readers, readers who will enjoy sinking their teeth into the author's considerable back-list, which will be republished by Flame Tree Press over the remainder of 2018 and well into 2019. Introducing an imprint, and even to a certain degree reintroducing an already established author, with a work of Gothic horror like The Siren and The Specter is a smart move, and one that instills a lot of confidence in this new brand. Get ready to expand your imagination.

[Note: I received an advance reader copy of The Siren and The Specter from Flame Tree Press.]

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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