Some small towns, particularly the ones with a long history, tend to have some lingering traditions and legends that border on the bizarre. In Dave Zeltserman's The Caretaker of Lorne Field, a groundskeeper tends a field in the middle of the woods, pulling what appear to be weeds, from the spring thaw until the first frost--every single day. His name is Jack Durkin, the Caretaker of Lorne Field, a hallowed position in town that was his birthright and has been the responsibility of every eldest son in the Durkin clan.
Why tend a derelict field of weeds? Because, if he doesn't, those weeds will grow into monsters that will ravage the earth of every living thing. The creatures are called Aukowies, beastly, ravenous creatures with a malevolence unmatched by anything known to man. The trouble is that the present generation in the town passes off the legend as superstition, and consider Jack Durkin a fool for espousing such malarkey. Even Jack's wife and two sons don't believe him when he says he's saving the world everyday.
The story is a terrific tug-of-war between Jack Durkin and nearly the entire town, particularly his wife, over the existence of the Aukowies and the Contract that binds the Durkin family to Lorne Field. Jack tends the field, wearing the scars of war and the ravages of time, making a modest salary for his deeds. It's a thankless job. Meanwhile, his wife, Lydia, is resentful and doesn't believe the Aukowies are anything more than a silly tradition that should have been abandoned decades ago. She lives in poverty and wants something more before she too is withered to the bone.
The book was a little difficult to get sucked into at first, because Jack and Lydia are both utterly unlikable characters in the beginning. Hard-bitten, caustic, and verbally abusive, neither of them really present themselves as sympathetic characters, rather a bitter, old married couple reaching the end of their rope. As the story develops though, and the two sons come into play--the eldest highly resistant to becoming the next Caretaker--and Jack's relationships with certain townsfolk become clear, it becomes a hard book to put down.
The generation gaps are widely apparent and exploited to great effect. And the growing question of Jack's sanity becomes very taut, as his wife and others in town conspire to undermine his duties in Lorne Field so he will be forced to give up what they consider an insane tradition that needs to be erased. Zeltserman presents opposing points of view that keep you guessing until the final chapter whether Jack Durkin is right or simply insane.
Some of the dialogue in the beginning of the novel between Jack and Lydia feels very tinny, and created a bit of a stumbling block for me as I tried to get into it. Once I got about a third of the way through, that kind of fell away and I realized that two people who have lived such a limited existence, stuck in a small house together under trying circumstances for decades, are bound to speak in repetitive and grating tones.
I'd definitely recommend this book for folks looking for something off the beaten path in their horror and speculative fiction. There's a hint of The Twilight Zone to the story, with the small town playing host to an extraordinary legend. And there's a hint of Alfred Hitchcock too, with the mounting tension inside the Durkin family. A couple of the little twists in the story are telegraphed to the point you can see exactly how the next scene will play out, but the story still works.
Zeltserman's bread and butter is apparently with crime and mystery fiction, but he's got the chops when it comes to horror, too.