“Everyone seemed to feel himself in close proximity to phases of Nature and of being utterly forbidden, and wholly outside the sane experience of mankind,” H.P. Lovecraft writes in his 1929 short story, “The Dunwich Horror.” Lovecraft’s fiction evokes an eerie, neo-Gothic closeness to the natural world while alternately imagining the farthest reaches of believability, the macabre ideas to be found “outside the sane experience of mankind.”
It was surely this delicate balance that Caroline Kepnes, veteran entertainment journalist and author of thrillers like “Hidden Bodies” and “You,” intended to invoke with her latest novel, “Providence.” Yet Kepnes’s novel, which is inspired by and often directly alludes to “The Dunwich Horror,” comes as an ersatz replication of Lovecraft’s delicately wrought horror fiction.
Indeed, Lovecraft—father of all things macabre, freakish, otherworldly—would likely be alarmed at the idea of inspiring a work of fiction as banal as “Providence.” Situated at the intersection of Lovecraftian supernatural thriller and detective noir, the novel is the kind of popular book written to entice a Hollywood producer into greenlighting a film adaptation—the promise of CGI special effects laced into every chapter. Think many distracting bells and whistles, few moments of actual substance.
And who knows? The blockbuster ploy just might be successful, but the novel itself as a work of fiction reads unintelligently. Chloe Sayers and Jon Bronson, two New Hampshire teenagers, build an unlikely friendship. She is the popular girl, he is the middle school outcast, and while Chloe’s friends court boys at pool parties, those same boys bully Jon into taking a different route to school. One morning, Jon mysteriously disappears, launching a community-wide search. Four years later, he awakens from a medically induced coma in the basement of a mall, suddenly brawny and handsome, and with a strange, uncontrollable ability to induce heart attacks in other people—the result of genetic manipulation by his kidnapper. After the first of these traumatic incidents, Jon goes on the run while Chloe grows up, even going through an emo phase, in the wake of his destruction. Some years later, with Jon using his power to pick off local drug dealers and Chloe balancing her career as an artist and loveless engagement with her stock-trader fiancé, an aging detective named Charles “Eggs” DeBenedictus begins to unpack the shady underpinnings of the unexplained deaths.
“Providence” sustains enough energy to keep a casual reader interested, and it may be satisfactory enough as an anesthetizing beach read. It begins with an interesting enough set-up—boy meets girl, boy vanishes and re-emerges with superpowers—but Kepnes loses track of the introduction’s propulsive energy and lets it strangle the life from the narrative. The next couple hundred pages are listless and scatterbrained, the once-innovative conceit growing as limp and lifeless as one of Jon’s heart attack victims.
Narrated in turns by Chloe, Jon, and Eggs in alternatingly halting, inelegant prose, the pages of “Providence” are populated by melodramatic characters with inert inner lives. Chloe and Jon seem to be in constant pursuit of each other, but while Jon uses his time to determine the scope of his powers and wield them in vigilante-style killings of local druggies, Chloe vacillates emotionally between pining for Jon and resigning herself to a life of financial security with her fiancé Carrig—which hardly makes sense, given the dearth of emotional backstory for either relationship. Chloe imagines her life through romantic platitudes: “I love Jon. I want [Carrig]. My heart must be bigger than normal,” she thinks, and later, “Carrig’s love is sealing the crack in my heart that Jon made.” Until the last few pages, her character development rarely turns inward, addressing her own emotional turmoil; instead, her arc is male-oriented. It’s nice enough that Kepnes chooses to inhabit a female consciousness, but Chloe’s inner life hardly passes the Bechdel test. Meanwhile, Jon’s sections of the book are intriguing, but lack the rich, inner emotional potential that they could have had, instead reading like a play-by-play of a thriller screenplay. Only Eggs’ chapters are slightly redeemable, in which Kepnes dissects the machinery of an adequate marriage and the estranged parenting of a mentally handicapped child. Eggs’ life is painful, complex, interesting; if only it occupied more than a third of the novel.
But even the force of Eggs’ arc is blunted. Perhaps the biggest narrative crime is Kepnes’ decision to prematurely supply the “who” along with the whodunit. Just before Jon loses consciousness, he identifies his kidnapper (and the man responsible for his genetic transformation), and with that, any narrative suspense is murdered in cold blood, leaving the detective to “solve” a case the solution to which Kepnes has already made known. Eggs is less solving a case, and more retracing the steps that the reader has already walked.
The only question keeping “Providence” from petering out after the first 50 pages, then, is how Jon’s powers came to be and how they can be reversed. But Kepnes dances timidly around these inquiries, offering instead the cameos of a few doctors who supply vague answers: “A tree doesn’t just randomly grow tall, with one central branch,” one of them, Dr. Meeney, says cryptically. “The central branch fights the others to become what it is. Nothing is arbitrary about power.” The bridge between the pseudo-scientific and the thematic is weakly forged, and there’s no attempt at the specifics that would enrich this science fiction, not even a handwavy one. Even in the book’s final pages, Kepnes skirts a crucial plot resolution and performs the literary equivalent of a shrug: “Medicine is an approximate science.” So too, it seems, is fiction.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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