Dean M. King’s first novel, Sarah’s Cross, is a treat for readers who like their ghost stories seasoned lightly with blood and gore. King and his family live in Door County, but he chose to set Sarah’s Cross in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, a likely place to encounter spirits both helpful and malevolent.
King’s hero is Tommy Ryan, a likeable young man who enjoys the solitude of his isolated cabin near the Michigan border. The year is 1961 – a time setting that forces Tommy to pursue his scary quest without the aid of a cell phone or internet connection. He must do his research the old-fashioned way: in a library with a librarian. The time setting also makes it possible for Tommy to turn on the radio and hear the voice of President Kennedy announcing the success of Alan Shepard’s mission in outer space.
Although Tommy is accustomed to solitude, this news makes him wonder how Shepard would have felt if some disaster had prevented him from returning to Earth: “What would it be like to be completely separated from everyone who cares for me, cut off from all contact with no hope of ever being in the presence of those who make glad my needy heart?” The rest of the novel attempts to answer this question.
Tommy’s adventure begins when he finds a beautiful little girl sitting on a birch log by the side of the highway. When he stops to help her, she seems glad to see him, but she does not speak. Instead, she points to a tangle of dead grass. Tommy probes this thick tangle and finds a small, white cross – the sort of cross that was commonly used to memorialize the victims of fatal automobile accidents. The cross is painted with the name “Sarah” and the date “1948.”
Tommy allows the child to guide him through the woods toward a hidden lake. A large house is visible on the opposite shore, and a light comes on as they watch, indicating that the house is occupied. Unexpectedly, an alien thought strikes Tommy’s mind “as if I were picking it up like a receiver picks up a radio signal”: Leave her. She belongs to the Empty.
The next day, Tommy decides to investigate further. He finds a road that leads him to the lake and the house, a stately Queen Anne manor. The house, lawn and gardens are all meticulously maintained, and the front porch commands an excellent view of the lake, which “shimmered like a field of diamonds.”
In this beautiful hideaway, Tommy meets Vanessa Reissman – Mrs. Robert Reissman – an elegant, gracious young woman who seems glad of Tommy’s company. There’s only one thing wrong with this idyllic scene: Vanessa is convinced that World War II is still in progress and that her husband is still commanding his company of soldiers in a Philippine jungle. She tells Tommy that she never leaves the estate and intends to remain there until her husband comes home.
It appears that both Vanessa and little Sarah are trapped in the past, and Tommy feels duty bound to rescue them if he can. He’s further spurred to action when he encounters a hideous, zombie-like creature with a face so badly mangled that it is incapable of speech. Instead, the creature writes a message on a frosty car window: “HELP THEM.”
According to the biographical sketch on the first page of Sarah’s Cross, King is a member of both the Horror Writers Association and the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers. Such associations with “horror” might scare away readers who don’t enjoy vomiting for sport, but such fear would be misplaced.
Sarah’s Cross is actually a traditional ghost story with only a few gruesome scenes, and all but one of these is brief enough to be skimmed over if one wishes. Readers who have waded through Dracula and emerged with their sanity intact should find pleasant reading in Sarah’s Cross, which actually has a wholesome rather than horrific nature. All of the characters – the human ones, that is – are decent people of the sort who can still be found throughout America.
King tells his story well. The one noticeable narrative flaw is that he spends too much energy on his descriptive passages, piling on so many details that a reader loses interest. He does an excellent job of creating atmosphere, however, whether he takes his readers to a dark and dense wood, a beautiful estate or a remote salvage dump. Readers are also likely to be impressed by a daring twist near the end of the book. And anyone who reads Sarah’s Cross to its conclusion will probably never again look at crows in quite the same way.