Storms can be powerful agents of change. Just ask anyone in Moore, Oklahoma, about the changes their lives and surroundings underwent a couple of weeks ago; ask anyone in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, about the changes they saw back in April of 2011. These changes weren’t sought out, and they certainly weren’t welcome, but once those clouds stacked high and began to rotate, the changes were inevitable.
John Mantooth knows about storms. He was raised in Alabama, where tornado warnings in the spring are as common as mosquito bites and triple-digit temperatures in the summer. He’s seen the damage twisters can do. He knows that they can upend houses and lives with ease and an almost callous disregard. It’s no surprise then that tornadoes play such an integral part in his debut novel, The Year of the Storm. There are the real storms that tear through the pages of this book, wreaking havoc on this small, fictional corner of Alabama; and there are the metaphorical storms that rip through the lives of two teenagers who experience the upheaval decades apart, but eventually find that the damage binds them inextricably.
One of the boys is named Walter, and years ago his small town was traumatized by the disappearance of two young girls. The other is Danny, who lives in the same town in present day. The mystery of the two young girls still hangs over the place, but there are other disappearances that haunt Danny – namely, that of his mother and sister, who left the house one day and never came back. When Walter returns to the town the lives of the boy and the man begin to dovetail together, and the ghosts that haunt them both begin to clamor for the truth to come out.
Although largely grounded in the “real world,” there is a large supernatural element to Storm, an element that is the cornerstone of the truth that Danny is seeking. It’s integral to the story, but Mantooth handles it with a deft touch, never allowing it to overshadow the narrative. This is no hokey spook story; this is a sad, intensely personal story about loss and loneliness, with a powerful mystery and a compelling hook at its core.
The unbelievable things that Walter and, later, Danny come to believe are a wedge that separates them from family, friends and – ultimately, and far too soon – their childhood. Striking out on your own has a way of making you grow up fast. Both learn this firsthand, as the things they see and experience isolate them from those they thought they could count on. Authority figures grow suspicious, parents grow frustrated, and friends grow apart, leaving a confused young man and a bitter old man with no choice but to rely on one another.
I’ve read reviews and blurbs that compare The Year of the Storm to works by Stephen King and Robert McCammon, and there’s truly no higher praise I can heap on the book. Suffice to say that I find both comparisons to be quite apt. Like King, Mantooth displays the ability to create rich, believable characters out of thin air. Like McCammon, he perfectly captures what it’s like to grow up too fast in a rural town where secrets are widely discussed, gossip is prime currency, and the sins of the family can be a permanent mark against you.
The Year of the Storm is as strong a debut novel as any I’ve read in a long time. It’s frightening and sad, vicious and unforgiving, quiet and contemplative. It’s a helluva start to what’s surely going to be a career worth watching.
The Year of the Storm by John Mantooth at Amazon.com
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.