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Ann Arensberg
Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 0-394-55696-8
Publication Date: 02-02-1999
322 pages ; $24.00
Date Reviewed: 04-08-1999, 04-08-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002, 2012

Index:  Fantasy  Horror   General Fiction  

Even horror novels written by women are not often written from a woman's point of view. Ann Rice and Poppy Z. Brite both seem more comfortable speaking from mouth of a feminine man. Other female writers who do create female leads — Charlee Jacob, for example — are not creating characters you would be likely to meet in a grocery store.

'Incubus', by Ann Arensberg is striking because its main character, Cora Lieber is exactly like someone you might meet in a grocery store, or at Back to School Night in the cafeteria. She is skeptical, intelligent, and above all, normal. She bakes, she cleans, she's the minister's wife in the small town of Dry Falls, Maine, and she's being hunted by extra-dimensional entities that are very interested in sex and terror. What makes this novel fascinating is its intermingling of the ordinary and the extra-ordinary and the very female voice that tells such an unusual story.

This novel is a feast of Fortean (that is weird and usual, as in Charles Fort) subjects and events, including the being that is mentioned in the title. If one ever needed to see the wonderful rewards of Fortean research, 'Incubus' is the place to find it. Weather extremes, rains of unusual items, lost time, entities that would delight John Keel — it's all here in 'Incubus'. This is not to say that we haven't seen these things in novels before, but Arensberg has converted her character from a pure housewife and newspaper columnist into a Fortean researcher. It's the housewife who wins the reader over, with her careful recording of a subtle and horrific series of events.

'Incubus' tells the story of Dry Falls, Maine, during the summer of 1974, when droughts blight the lawns of the town, and the men of the town en masse lose interest in sex. Marital discord becomes the law of the land, and a whole group of girls pass out simultaneously at a school function. Strange things are surely afoot, so the minister and his wife are the natural first resort for the people of the town to come to. What makes Arensbug's novel so powerful is her intimate intermingling of things domestic — the chores of cooking, of having guests, of being the minister's wife — and the supernatural.

More and more women in town confess to having the incubus experience. There appears to be something — maybe more than one thing — that is determined to assault the women of the town, even if the intelligence behind the assaults has no body. Arensberg's scenes of the supernatural are chilling and always effective. It's a tribute to Arensberg's skills that even during the most extreme moments of terror, she maintains a low-key reality-driven skepticism. It makes the supernatural bits even more believable than those in a book where it's a given that there are ghosts, witches, goblins, vampires or whatever the monster of the week may be.

The action in this novel is low-key, everyday life, and the realistic scenes are so well drawn that the supernatural effects are cast into doubt. That's the point. Readers may find themselves wondering whether this is going to be another novel where the monster is a "no-see-um". It most definitely is not, but you'll watch Cora prepare a few dinners and deal with her dysfunctional mother and sister, who are, in their way just as disturbing.

These are realistic characters who deal with the unreal in straightforward, everyday manner. They become more dysfunctional when presented with the supernatural. They don't pick up arcane tomes of magic, do a bit of research and slip comfortably into woman-witch-warrior roles. Instead, they bicker, fight, and act immaturely, which of course, makes the supernatural battles more entertaining and more complex. Arensberg's ability to mix the mundane and the magical is itself quite bewitching. The studied, quiet power of suburban women proves to be an excellent match for the fantastic creations of a universe where the real and the unreal are given power and the responsibility to use it.

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