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The Dogs

by Allan Stratton

Playwright and author Allan Stratton has written Dora Mavor Moore Award–winning plays, fiction for adults, and, recently, a pair of fantasy books for middle-graders, but he is arguably best known for YA titles such as Printz Honor Book Chanda’s Secrets and White Pine Award finalist Borderline – topical stories with global reach and perspective. Stratton’s latest effort narrows its focus: one small town, one beat-up house, one family facing an intense threat. In our neo-gothic world, where toddlers dress as zombies for Halloween and irony has invaded, colonized, and rendered horror “cute,” it is increasingly rare to find genuine, convincing narratives that have us looking over our shoulders. The Dogs is such a narrative.

BFYP-06Teenager Cameron and his mother have been living in an impossible situation for years. When Cameron was eight, his mother escaped a violently abusive marriage. Since then her ex-husband has been pursuing them. No matter where they move, he finds them. Or does he? From the first page, Stratton sets up a taut ambiguity. Either Cameron’s father is a clever stalker or his mother is suffering from paranoia. Are the precautions she takes – the constant surveillance, the prohibitions against Cameron’s use of social media – sensible or crazy? We don’t know, and neither does Cameron, from whose perspective the tale is told.

The story begins as Cameron and his mother move yet again, this time to an old farmhouse in Wolf Hollow, 800 miles from their previous home. Familiar “new kid” tropes of integrating into the established high-school pecking order are heightened by the fact that Cameron is living a kind of witness-protection-program life. “The hardest part of first days, though, is keeping track of my lies,” he muses.

But school is the least of Cameron’s problems. Stratton introduces a secondary plotline: the farmhouse holds secrets. A grotesque death a couple of generations before and rumours of a murder invade Cameron’s imagination. As with the main premise of the pursuing father, Stratton establishes and maintains a disorienting ambiguity about what is real and what is imagined. Cameron starts to hear voices and have visions. Is he suffering from delusions, or has he really encountered the ghost of a little boy named Jacky, whose dire family history parallels Cameron’s own?

At every point in the story there are two possible interpretations of the events: one based on accepting the supernatural and one based on realistic possibility. For example, the fantasy-inclined reader will accept that the farmhouse, with its weird whisperings and sealed-up attic, is haunted. The realist, meanwhile, will be more likely to believe that places hold on to their stories, and crimes committed generations in the past have long, potent, and unpredictable impacts on the present.

The architecture of these intertwining plots is strong and graceful. As Cameron investigates the historical crime, Stratton metes out clues and revelations at just the right moments. Information drawn from old newspapers, elderly residents of a neighbourhood care facility, community lore, and the contents of the house accumulates plausibly. The one stumble involves the character Old Man Sinclair, whose behaviour is a stretch. Otherwise,  all of the action grows organically from the plot, and the mystery unfolds with sudoku-like logic.

The reason we care about Cameron’s fate in the midst of all this action is his voice. Stratton uses a standard combination of first person and present tense in his narration, but he entirely (and admirably) resists the temptation to make Cameron a smart-mouth, either in dialogue or his internal thoughts. This boy sounds real and he tells the truth. One of the most appealing promises of the first-person point of view in fiction is that the reader will get the skinny on what a character thinks and feels. In Cameron that promise is kept. “Dad. What if I am turning into him? Would that be so bad? Really? Once upon a time Mom loved him so much she married him. So how could he be that bad? OK, maybe he messed up, and maybe I don’t know all of it. But everyone messes up, don’t they? I sure have.”

Cameron’s speech is plain, restrained, and slightly formal, with minimal use of either slang or figurative language. When he’s angry, anxious, or ashamed, he admits it to himself and to the reader. This kind of straightforward emotional signalling is characteristic of “hi-lo” series books for reluctant readers; in this context it reads not as contrived telling but as poignant vulnerability. Likewise, the abundance of horror tropes – the howling of vicious dogs, a body in the trunk of a car, a scene in a foggy cemetery, skeletons under the barn floor – could be cheesy, but aren’t. What would it be like if the most frightening thing in your world lay at the heart of your own family? Stratton imagines this horror fully and convincingly.