Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Seven from Haven
by Daniel Grotta
Pixel Hill Press
2012, ISBN 978-0-9883871-8-8
The cover illustration of Daniel Grotta’s Seven from Haven shows two appealing cats, one white, one black, posed with a tombstone. This picture captures the tone of Grotta’s seven short stories in this collection – gentle discomfiting tales of the unexplained, set in or near the Pennsylvania mountain village of Haven. The stories are intriguing, eerie and disturbing, and also have as themes big issues like civil rights, war, technology, and the bonds that link human beings.
In “Could Have Been”, a sixty year old man taking a drive just before Hallowe’en picks up a shabby emaciated, hitchhiker near Haven. The two men, of the same generation, strike up a conversation. When Vietnam is mentioned, an awkward silence falls.
“Perhaps it was analogous to two…early Christians meeting for the first time and wearily, tentatively, holding out twisted fingers or surreptitiously drawing a squiggle on the sand, waiting to see if the other could, would, complete the secret handshake or pictograph,” says the narrator. One man is a war veteran; the other opposed the war and lost friends and career opportunities as a consequence. A civil rights era experience is recounted. After they have shared their stories, the driver realizes that the hitch-hiker was his “could-have-been” and vice versa, and they part with mutual respect. Is the hitch-hiker a “doppelganger”; that is, a paranormal double? Or perhaps a “subjective double”, a doppelganger of similar appearance but different character and leading a life of its own? An “evil twin”, the physical copy of the protagonist but with radically different morals”? Or is he simply a hitch-hiker?
“Angel of Mercy” concerns an affluent young couple who enjoy their Poconos mountain home near Haven, which is equipped with the latest technological devices to make life better. The wife is pregnant. Two weeks before her due date an ice storm knocks out the power, telephone and furnace, and sends a tree crashing into their garage door, imprisoning the Lexus and the SUV. When the wife goes into labour and the cell phones don’t work, the husband manages to get into the garage by the side door to use the car phone to summon help.
Out of the storm a woman doctor arrives and announces that she must perform a Caesarian section on the wife. The storm has rendered useless the couple’s technological comforts, taking their standard of living back to pioneer times, but that does not explain why Dr. Nadel has such oldfashioned equipment. She takes from her bag a “two piece steel and glass syringe” instead of a disposable plastic one. She applies an orange disinfectant “like iodine or mercurochrome”. She anaesthetizes the wife using an ether drip and a mask, and provides the husband and herself with tie-on gauze masks. The author cleverly distracts the reader from thinking too much about the equipment by describing the surgery, which many readers will find gory and frightening. Since this is a book of ghost stories, some may suspect that the doctor is no mere mortal – but what led her to their home?
“Mr. Eastman’s Empathy” has a strong surprise ending. A computer expert driving through Pennsylvania stops at a Haven cafe and becomes the captive audience of the owner, who monologues about the late Raymond Easton, a local benefactor who “died of empathy.” Eastman, a wealthy “high tech yuppie type” from King of Prussia, PA, took early retirement and settled in Haven with his companion, Glen. Glen’s sudden fatal heart attack led Eastman to buy the town an ambulance, fund the training of local emergency responders, and qualify as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). On one emergency call, moved by the plight of a thirteen year old with a spinal cord injury, Eastman placed his hands on her neck and healed her. “Some swear that there was a bright strobe-like light pulsing from his hands,” says the cafe owner. Mr. Eastman went on to heal others but every time he ddid so he lost some of his own vitality. When Pete, the cafe owner, tells his customer that Eastman lost his own life when he raised a careless motorcycle accident victim from the dead, the listener is sceptical. Then comes the surprise ending.
Readers who like traditional (non-experimental) stories with a beginning, a middle and an end will enjoy Seven from Heaven. Daniel Grotta, a former journalist and editor, is the author of three novels on themes similar to those in his stories, and also a biography of J.R.R. Tolkein. For more information about these works, visit www.PixelHallPress.com
Visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com for more information on Ruth Latta’s books including her 2013 novel, The Songcatcher and Me, reviewed in Compulsive Reader.