The opening lines of J. Robert Lennon’s fifth novel, Castle, describe a landscape of impenetrable wilderness, an image that comes to pervade the book. The narrator, a plainspoken man named Eric Loesch, has just returned to his hometown and purchased a large tract of undeveloped forest on the “far western edge of the county,” with only a dilapidated farmhouse at its edge. Loesch has almost no family and few friends and seems determined to avoid any connection to his old life in the area. “I tend to align myself,” he explains, “against the present cultural obsession with the past. . . . I do not like to reminisce about my own childhood, or remember pleasant moments in my life. . . . I make my most important decisions according to the facts on the ground, and do not allow the past, or some sentimental interpretation of it, to interfere with my present actions.”
But it is in the very firmness of Loesch’s convictions that the reader detects the story’s hairline cracks. Several unsettling events occur just after Loesch takes possession of the property. First, he discovers that a modest section in the middle of his plot is owned by someone else, whose name is blacked out on all records. When he hikes to the center of his forest to look at this piece of land, he discovers a small castle built against an enormous boulder. Then, his backpack disappears while he’s out in the woods, and odd objects—a child’s toy locomotive, the dead body of a white deer—are left where he might find them. Clearly, the land and the house are not what they seem, but then again, neither is Eric Loesch. As he investigates these mysteries, what he uncovers leaves him lost in the wilderness of his own past, no longer able to dismiss the fact that he knows more than he is willing to admit to himself.
Castle blends a gothic sense of the un-canny with the more modern sophistication of the psychological thriller. Lennon displays an expert ability to fracture his narrator’s iron resolve with a steady series of disquieting revelations, slowly leading Loesch away from a preoccupation with the physical setting to an awareness that an unknown frontier dwells within him. But the revelation of a secret at the heart of the tale is a mistaken turn: Loesch’s military past, in the Iraq war, involved an incident of torture, and the final scenes offer a meditation on the nature of human cruelty, particularly the way a victim can turn into a perpetrator. Although a fascinating gambit, the juxtaposition of the tropes of horror fiction and the real-world horrors of war comes off clumsily, especially when set against Lennon’s craft and nuance, so evident from the outset.