S.E. Hinton,
Hawkes Harbor
(Tor, 2004)

S.E. Hinton has earned an impressive reputation, built on classics of young adult fiction like The Outsiders and Tex. Always focusing on life in modern, often urban adolescence, she takes a detour to Hawkes Harbor for her first adult novel. At first the story of Jamie Summers seems to follow in the history of her usual protagonists, as Jamie, a hard-skinned hard-luck case, works his way through the perils of sailor's life. But then the sea fades to a mental institution, and Jamie leaves the comfortable perils of the known world for something altogether more damning.

Hinton shows off an unexpected flair for the horrific. Playing lightly with the easily mishandled techniques of nonsequential pacing, she moves from foreboding to consequence, leaving much of the actual horror to lurk unmentioned. The trick could feel pretentious, but instead pulls the reader into sympathy with Jamie's disjointed madness. His slow retelling of a reopened coffin and subsequent nightmares that drive him to the mental institution is played like a strobe light, shining just enough light on the scene to show its unsettling progression. Horror stories, particularly vampire horror stories, are often hampered by their history. Knowing the general outline of a monster can take some of the fear from their shadow. Using Jamie as a filter, Hinton makes the olds shocks new again, and painfully personal.

The first half of Hawkes Harbor is a tight descent into horror, paced with just the right gaps and shadows to feed the imagination. The second is a tale of redemption -- unexpected, unlikely and almost unbelievable. This second part of the book arrives on a note of sustained tension, with Jamie returning to the scene of his nightmares and finding something very different. The standard horror story structure would dictate that a return to the monster's lair end in fresh horrors and violent conflict. Instead, the curse of the vampire is lifted, the ultimate showdown perpetually offscreen.

Jamie is a wonderful bit of character. Though he goes from one extreme personality to another, bouncing between mad courage and broken terror, Hinton ties him to the reader with deft narrative technique, making him not just a believable character, but a near cipher for the readers' feelings, while never losing sight of his individual attitude. The tactile immediacy of Jamie's adventures evoke visceral reactions, shared with the character to create a rare bond between protagonist and reader. Only at the very end of Hawkes Harbor does Jamie begin to go where others might not know how to follow, and by then the sympathetic bond is too strong to allow for much disassociation. Despite the drama of pirates, sharks, killer princesses and even a shocking dose of the supernatural, Jamie holds the spotlight throughout the novel.

Other characters, especially the sometimes-vampire Grenville Hawkes and his enthralled anthropologist, don't attain such depth. Grenville begins as an ultimately threatening character, and later attempts to gain him some reader sympathy are hampered by the fact that, even apart from the vampirism, he's not a very nice man. Fans of darkly romantic vampires will find little to cheer, either; Hinton wastes no time to play with a dark mythos. Most of the characters Jamie interacts with appear too briefly to have much development. Yet the town of Hawkes Harbor develops a quiet undercurrent of occupation, a sense of a living population that happens to have little to do with Jamie's story. That distant populace adds a needed touch of realism to a sometimes fantastic tale.

Vampires and ghosts, young hot-bloods carousing with pirates and partying through New Orleans, all seem to be trappings of the most juvenile of juvenile fiction. Hinton has always known how to use the rough trappings of immature fantasies to strike at enduring truths. Using the tight pacing of her young adult fiction and a quietly complex understanding of human behavior, she here delivers an unexpected dark pleasure from a writer many may think they can predict. Fan of horror, fan of Hinton or just looking for a life story that won't be weighed down by pretension, you'll find a treat in Hawkes Harbor.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 20 November 2004

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