It’s 1959, and very late at Jim’s house on the North Liverpool coast, England, when a dead man steps out of the wallpaper. It’s Jim’s Uncle Buddy, killed in World War I, and he’s come to take the boy back with him to the ghostly front lines.
This is the hair-raising start to an absolutely first-rate read by standout author Clive Warner. If you liked Stephen King’s Stand By Me, about four young friends coming of age too soon, you’ll love Warner’s economical yet highly descriptive style.
Jim’s problematic relationship with his parents leads him, like so many kids, to roam far afield in the coastal countryside with just his trusty bike and his preteen buds with him, in search of adventure — or, at least something to break the boredom of his totally average daily routine.
Average, that is, if you don’t count the nocturnal visits from dead Uncle Buddy, or the occasional glimpse of Old Beardy, the Hightown Hermit. Or Jim’s ever-present adolescent angst that leads inevitably to poor choices and catastrophic circumstances.
It is, in fact, just such an unfortunate accident that suddenly throws a pall over Jim’s household. His Mom moves out for a week because of the miscue, and lays the blame squarely at his mud-caked feet. However, the boy continues to pelt from one bad decision to another in the time-honored tradition of youth everywhere. For example, he discovers that fireworks-making can be really fun — though deadly — and his fascination with chemicals leads to creation of a toxic cocktail that his dad inadvertently consumes. And then there’s the insistent specter of deceased Uncle Buddy, who keeps dragging him back every night to the front line foxholes.
These scenes from The Great War really are first-rate, as we can feel the damp earthen parapets and smell the high explosives as they crump over our heads. And Jim, well, he’s going a bit nutters from lack of sleep and outright fatigue from his nightmarish sojourns to war-torn El Alamein, in Egypt.
Of particular note is a passage in which the town hermit, himself a war veteran, recounts a ghastly recollection from the war’s brutal combat. It’s the chill hour before dawn, near Ypres, and the recluse, then a frightened young soldier like so many others, comes upon one of his prewar friends crouched behind some sandbags. The man is firing his rifle in short bursts into the darkness in front of him.
“‘Do you hear them crying?’” the soldier asks. “He meant the sound of the wounded men, lying out there in No Man’s Land. Then he laughed. It was a crazy-sounding laugh, shrill, like a woman’s laugh. He said, ‘I shoot at those until they leave off.’ Then he laughed again. It made me shiver.”
The soldier is shooting the defenseless men where they lie moaning in the night — killing them, both Brit and German alike, just to shut them up. But as macabre as that vignette is, it’s the end of this dreadful remembrance that will make your eyes widen in sudden horror.
As Jim jumps from one crisis to another, his incredible ability to forget his last bad choice in eager expectation of a better one just ahead propels him like a pinball toward personal purgatory and exile from all he holds dear. The whole village is pursuing him, but it’s his own troubled tendencies that keep dragging him down.
This five-star work of fiction is pure literary gold, and will hold you spellbound for hours as you wonder what Jim will be up to in the next chapter. And if you were ever thirteen years old, you’ll relate most uncomfortably to the ever-present uncertainty that seems to pervade that period of one’s youthful existence.