By Tim McGregor
Tenebrous Press — 18th July 2022
ISBN: 9781737982302 — Paperback — 170 pp.
Tim McGregor has quite a knack for historical/folk horror that mercilessly goes for the gut. Last year I had the chance to read and review his brilliant novel Hearts Strange and Dreadful. And so I jumped at the chance to check out this novella. Both stories feature strong, evocative writing and slow-building dread to depict a community and family unraveling, and both share feminist themes of female oppression by society and the horrific, dark consequences of this as the women discover retributive empowerment. It continues to be a fitting moral for the day.
Lure is set in Torgrimsvaera, a shabby fishing village on the shores of a fictional land, isolated from the surrounding land by the unforgiven sea and an impenetrable ring of mountains. Atop a hill looking out over the sea sits the village chapel. Within, strung from the ceiling dangles the skeletal remains of a sea monster, a deity-like creature slain in village legends of yore. Fifteen year old Kaspar Lensman, the son of the village preacher gazes at in wonder, questioning what may be truth or fiction, but unable to dwell on such matters due to immediate need. The village is going through a period of want, hauls from the sea decreasing and fishermen and their families going hungry. This puts the Lensman family in worse straits, for they’re dependent on the goodwill of the village. Uriah earns no salary, and members of the village are simply expected to tithe a portion of their haul to feed the Reverend and his kin.
After the disappearance of his wife, Reverend Uriah has grown harsher, and more distant. The added pressures of reduced yields from the sea and increasing frequencies of storms makes things even more difficult to bear. Responsibility falls upon Kaspar to go to the dock and try to beg for scraps that he might bring home for his sister Bryndis to cook, something that might temporarily fill their bellies, particularly that of their simple and optimistic younger brother Pip who the elder siblings love so. Pip’s energy and enthusiasm proves draining for Kaspar and Bryndis alike amid the harsh realities of entering adulthood in oppressive Torgrimsvaera.
More frail and timid than the other men around him, Kaspar remains mostly overlooked and scorned. He dreams of marrying his childhood friend and first love Agnet – the only person who seems to really understand or appreciate him – but Agnet has been forced into marriage with Gunther the Brave, a hulking giant whose power on the briny seas is matched only by his salty personality and callous cruelty to Kaspar and to Agnet.
Equally powerless to the whims of the men in the village is Bryndis, who longs to marry a young, kind-hearted man close to her age. But instead, Uriah has arranged her betrothal to an older widow now in need of a replacement wife. While Kaspar strives to win his beloved Agnet from the clutches of the brutish Gunther, strong willed Bryndis ponders defiance and prays for release. But both know, deep down, that they are ultimately powerless.
One day a woman is seen out in the sea, diving beneath the waves and resurfacing distantly. Cries of mermaid go out, and the fishermen rush out to capture the creature of legend. They fail, but the wounded mermaid ends up in a secluded spot where Kaspar and Agnet used to meet, where Kaspar still goes for quiet reverie. Kaspar’s attempts to play his secret of the mermaid’s location for his advancement lead to the village caging the creature. As people argue over the significance of the mermaid’s appearance and what to do with her, Kaspar’s guilt leads him to clandestinely release her back to freedom.
The mermaid returns to the sea, but does not stray far. Some in the village decide to go after her. And then the bloodshed really begins, as the mermaid – or the luremaid, more aptly – turns the sea into her hunting grounds for the men who give chase, and sings a siren call to the women of the village: a transformative song of madness and revolt. With nowhere to run and their only source of food inaccessible, the men face cold slaughter and society teeters toward collapse.
Lure oozes with harsh atmosphere: the natural brutalities of the cold sea and chilly salted winds, the social tyranny of tradition, and ancient horrors from the realms of near-forgotten legend. McGregor permeates the novella with such dark atmosphere to slowly unfurl the plot, the descent of the village and the characters into damnation. The superb text is coupled with fantastic interior illustrations by Kelly Willliams, such as the one below.
McGregor matches the dark atmosphere with a protagonist who is blinded to the doom around him by his own ignorance and self preoccupation. Kaspar is a fascinating main character and point-of-view for the novella. He has qualities and perspectives that put him much closer to the position of females in the village. Yet, he also clearly still has privileges associated with being male that he can’t recognize, most particularly an expectation to get what he wants, or what he is ‘owed’, and a selfishness to abandon any real solidarity or support for the women in his life if it’s interfering with his goals. Yet, his gullibility and lack of self awareness make him also sympathetic, readers wondering if he has a chance for growth and reform.
Even more sympathetic a character is Pip, epitomizing the innocence of childhood, suffering without any guilt. Along with the oppressed Bryndis, then, this makes all three of the Lensman children objects of reader empathy and hope, even if they are mostly imperfect with flaws.
But this is horror, and McGregor steers the ship of this tale to its ruthless conclusion. In this, the lure of the title is perhaps not referring to just the luremaid of the plot, but to McGregor himself, as he enchants the reader through the pages and their developing terror.