Review: Life, death and the pursuit of artificial happiness

The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper
Simon and Schuster
Toronto, 2019

The best part of the horror genre is its ability to seize the social anxieties of the day and to mortar and pestle them into a grotesque pill that does not go down easily.

With an internal struggle against “illegals” crossing the Mexico-U.S. border and a president who seems mulish in sticking to his misguided promise of building a wall, there is no better place to turn to than aliens of a scientific experiment.

With hints of influence from Gareth Edwards’ 2010 political commentary allegory, Monsters, as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, the story revolves around a family that’s come together to divide the estate of their absentee father.

The aliens, or an empty family, is drawn together by a handful of memories and their shared ambivalence of their father. There is the older brother, Aaron, the drug-addled middle child, Franny, and the teen, Bridge (short for Brigit). Mom is also around but somewhat detached.

Aaron is close with his younger sister Bridge, a sort of surrogate father figure for the one that was never there.

They are brought to Belfountain, a lodge in a dense national park in the thick of Washington State in an air of suspicion. Who was the man that they called father and why was his work so hush-hush?

Day One is meeting with the lawyer, and day two is when the sidebar comes. A meeting with a second family as it is revealed their father was one of those fathers.

The second family features a gym teacher, Jerry, two twin actors Ezra and Elias, as well as a fourth, Lauren, who is adopted.

Mysterious denizens creep into the periphery — an elderly woman, and a tall man — and as they manifest so to does the violence.

The little discussions between the families reveal what’s bubbling beneath the surface. As Franny interjects during one conversation, as the families fear for their lives, “You voted for him”.

The reference to the 45th is uncanny, but given there are no time frames, it’s only assumed. The xenophobia reaches a fever pitch when Lauren and Aaron wait for the food delivery to the Belfountain compound only to be met by an angry white man.

It’s clear that they’re hidden from the cruelties that the real world suffers from, in perpetuity, but inside Belfountain, once the electrified fence is turned on, the real turning on each other begins.

The families become divided, but Lauren leans toward the first Quinlan family. It’s an interesting shift that reveals she never really felt at home with the second one.

Which lends credence to the argument that the two sides are pitted against each other as a foundation for political allegory.

As the story progresses, breadcrumbs are added. Fairy tale references, bible camps and inexplicable blood trails lead the members to uncover some sort of scientific experiment that harkens back to the Project MKUltra.

The pulling back of the foliage in a dense forest reveals more about mortality, memory, identity and the choosing of sides.

With every leaf turned — and The Homecoming is a page turner — we discover two people behind the curtains, pulling strings: the one driven by avarice and the other Frankenstein figure that is out to further manipulate the patients.

It’s a cynical view of the outside world that allows us to fall deeper for the two characters that seem to be the foundation of morality in the book, Aaron and Bridge.

Overall, it’s more of a science fiction novel than a horror — one in the same vein as Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters — but the themes of death and resurrection do bring about the supernatural fascination with the afterlife and reprinting one’s memories.

If anything, this is a read that winds like the path of an escapee traversing the tortuous path of an overgrown rainforest.

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