Looking Glass Sound
- By Catriona Ward
- Tor Nightfire
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- September 6, 2023
Killings and creepiness pervade a New England seaside town.
It can be difficult to review metafictional horror. As I sat down to start this piece, I found myself wondering two things brought on by Catriona Ward’s masterful writing: Am I in a novel myself? And is something highly unpleasant about to pop out of my closet?
All this to say that Ward’s latest, Looking Glass Sound, is a marvelously spooky tale, though it doesn’t rely solely on its ominous plot to snare readers. Threaded through the heart of the book is a story — or, more accurately, several interrelated stories — of friendship, love, and loss.
Spanning decades, the novel opens with the unpublished memoir of Wilder Harlow, an awkward young man from New York City spending a summer with his parents at his deceased uncle’s cottage on Whistler Bay in Castine, Maine. As soon as they arrive, Wilder notices the eerie “whistling for which the bay is named. It sounds like all the things you’re not supposed to believe in — mermaids, selkies, sirens.”
He quickly makes the first two friends he’s ever had in Castine: a boy named Nat and a girl named Harper. Both boys are in love with Harper — a complication that, along with her budding alcoholism and insistence on mean-spirited pranks, frequently leaves their interactions fraught. During this sojourn at Whistler Bay, Wilder also learns about the Dagger Man (a furtive figure who breaks into houses at night and takes Polaroids of sleeping children with a knife at their necks) and about the disappearance of several local women over many years.
When Wilder returns to Castine the following summer, he gets a brief taste of the nostalgia he’s been looking forward to before everything suddenly changes. A freak accident leaves Nat in the hospital and leads to a shocking discovery about the identity of the Dagger Man and about the culprit responsible for the missing women.
“It was never the tide which was dangerous to swimmers around here,” Wilder reflects. Later, he watches police divers search the sound, recovering women’s bodies stashed in oil drums:
“And another barrel comes out from the water, and another, and another one after the other. Then there’s no more room, and a second boat arrives. They load all the new drums onto that. Eight in all. I learn later that the police think that there was once one more drum…Somehow, the oldest, the first drum was loosed, was swept gently out to sea by the tide, fell off the deep ledge of the sea shelf and into the deepest black.”
Wilder hopes to expunge the trauma by leaving for college, where he meets a young man, Sky, who seems at first to understand and support him, but eventually reveals his own connection to Castine and Looking Glass Sound. Shortly thereafter, Sky absconds with Wilder’s research and half-finished memoir, using it to publish a book of his own.
Furious and heartbroken, Wilder spends the next 22 years nursing the memory of this betrayal before eventually returning to Castine to confront both Sky, who now lives there, and the secrets from his own past. Instead, he finds himself once more tangled in the weeds of his long-ago, tormented summertime relationships, reconnecting with Harper and experiencing strange hallucinations. (Scattered throughout the book are brief, word-game-like poems — “Hello/Hell/Help” — that materialize without explanation and lend a menacing feel.)
As Wilder’s mind unravels, it becomes clear his reality isn’t the only one being compromised. Other versions of past events begin to unspool around him, leading the reader to question which story is true. As the narrative culminates in a crescendo of confusion, the strands finally twist together into a single magnum opus. Despite its sometimes challenging, hard-to-follow plot points, Looking Glass Sound is metafiction at its best.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.