Black Forest is a perpetually morphing entity, one that petrifies at the height of intimacy, and seduces in the wake of malice. Despite Nathan’s — partial — grasp of reality, shaped around the last vestiges of high school, college, and heart-coercing relationships, the novel’s eerie element is never fully sedated.
In fact, he proves a fascinating character to base a shape-shifting narrative around. Compelled by an inner wickedness he keeps defying, Nathan often experiences a combination of desire and frustration, dread and exhilaration. As a result, there’s a delicious, profoundly sexual undertone to the hauntings that mutilate his sanity.
Consumed by loneliness, disaffection, and a longing for the elusive and the ever-changing, Nathan falls prey to a transformation that leaves everyone, particularly him, blindsided. Its artful subtlety is aided by Dean’s writing, which is as exceptional as it is rousing.
And so, with a voice that grips, beguiles, and consumes in the same breath, he manages to imbue the prose with a ferocity that scours the mind and the body alike. The complexity of Black Forest’s countless parts is perhaps the very thing that elevates it beyond the limitations of horror. Just like Nathan, we’re never fully persuaded by the feigned stability of the mind.
With sly references to his parents’ alcoholism, schizophrenia, the supernatural, magic, demons, folklore, as well as innate human depravity, no path of reasoning is ever awarded a higher status than the sum of its contenders. The result is, naturally, exhilarating.
What’s more, by suffusing horror with the air of a psychological thriller, Dean weaves a web of strained, painfully twisted relationships. Imitating the thin physicality of a nightmare, the story manipulates both time and sense, degrading the warm shine of a familiar face and the hunger of spoiled flesh with the same scathing incredulity.
Everything, after a certain point, is dream-like and hazy, silently menacing and equally enthralling. To top it all off, the author leaves us with a wounded sense of validity. That’s because, by allowing Nathan to step in and out of self-made realities, Dean exposes our tendency, and need, to create private worlds.
We end up interpreting events in a way that renders life a bespoke creation, a by-product of overarching fear — both in terms of the space it offers, and the limitations invoked by such a release.
In Nathan’s case, fear feeds on the critical state of the only friendship he’s ever known, a shattered heart, as well as the melancholy and yearning brought on by change. That, and the “deaders” and other monstrosities that pursue him.
Nathan’s interactions with them further illuminate Dean’s dexterity with the genre. He projects scenes of such violent atrocity that the margin between fantasy and the reader’s own reality is smeared to oblivion.
Thus, we’re never quite sure if we’ve given ourselves over to a supernatural tale, or one of mental deterioration. This sentiment is boosted by the people nearest to Nathan, who seem to nudge him closer to the edge with every violation of the construct of his happiness.
This observation is sharpened by a prophecy that is gleaned early on in the tale, and which goes on to dismember Nathan’s present. It leaves him flailing around as he seeks to fit the fragments of reality within the framework of an already-formed experience.
And so, we’re aware of the direction the story will take, but never the rate of its disintegration. This process, as formless as it is voracious, flares out to engulf bodies, shapes, names, truth, and the illusion of distinctiveness.
At its culmination point lingers a thing that surfaces and pulses to the beat of a deadened heart. The thought that arises before being swallowed up again is one of our lack of control, and our endless hunger for it. Intoxicating, hallucinatory, sensual, and crippling, Black Forest defies the limits of the page to plague the psyche long after the last nerve has been severed.
Publication date: November 1, 2022 (Inkshares)