Kip Koelsch’s THE PECULIAR AFFLICTION OF THOMAS WADE DUNCAN is an odd, eerie novella that feels like it was plucked out of time, having more in common with the mystery tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs than with contemporary mystery fiction.
Thomas Wade Duncan—a Civil War soldier who washes up on the desolate shore of Black Ledge Cove missing a leg and addicted to morphine—isn’t an especially unreliable narrator, but he is a bit clueless. The women of Black Ledge Cove—kind, young Milly and crabby old Mrs. Dawes—nurse him back to health while weaning him off morphine. It turns out Black Ledge Cove is only filled with women; a terrible fever wiped out the children, and all the men left several years ago under mysterious circumstances. The ladies of Black Ledge Cove all visit a barn-like structure dubbed “The Library,” where Duncan is convinced something supernatural is happening. Has he been rescued by a coven of witches?
Author Koelsch doesn’t waste time ratcheting up the tension. His sparse prose creates a stark Gothic mood. The Library’s secret is a good one; the women visit there to communicate with the ghosts of their dead children: “When the women read books they shared with their children long ago, those children appear and interact with them. A mother’s greatest dream, I suppose.” With the help of Milly, Duncan tries to use the Library’s supernatural power to learn the fate of the fiance he left “back home.” If her ghost appears, she must be dead, but if no ghost shows, she’s still alive and awaiting Duncan’s return. Duncan is a little dopey, though. Milly has an escape plan of her own, slipping morphine into Duncan’s tea, causing him to fall back into drug addiction. Will she fulfill her promise of helping Duncan escape Black Ledge Cove and reuniting with his long, lost love—or are her designs more sinister?
Koelsch crafts a deceptively simple tale that telegraphs its ending yet still manages to pull off a few surprises. THE PECULIAR AFFLICTION OF THOMAS WADE DUNCAN creates a sense of isolation and melancholy that blends Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and HP Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This is a tale of “weird, witchy women” in the style of Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and Laird Barron’s The Croning. There are plenty of familiar plot points in the story, but Koelsch’s economical style results in an effectively creepy tale. Overall, the book feels a bit like an introduction to a larger piece. Here’s hoping the story of Duncan and Milly continues.
Kip Koelsch’s THE PECULIAR AFFLICTION OF THOMAS WADE DUNCAN is a tightly written supernatural tale that brings to mind the mystery adventures of yesteryear, blending supernatural chills and haunting atmosphere.
~Rob Errera for IndieReader