Zarahemla Books hits the sweet spot again with its latest book offering, Luisa Perkins’ Dispirited. The supernatural thriller/YA dark fantasy is a worthy addition to Zarahemla’s quality library of Mormon literature, and continues to showcase the diversity Zarahemla displays on its shelf. Zarahemla is as much of a home for genre fiction, as it is high brow literary novels, as it is for personal essays, as it is for short stories, as it is now for Mormon drama (full disclosure: Zarahemla Books will be publishing a book of two of my plays in the next few weeks, as well as an anthology of Mormon Drama which I helped pull together later this Summer… but I was a big fan of ZB’s approach long before those projects). Dispirited continues Zarahemla’s big tent tradition with its blend of dark, magical realism and young adult sensibility (with a dash of the bizarre just to throw you off kilter).
Dispirited jumps right into the conflict in its first chapter when a young boy named Blake is grieving for his dead mother and so stumbles upon the ability to separate his spirit from his body (astral projection). Thus he travels to the astral plane in search for his mother. However, Blake is in for a rude awakening (or unawakening) when he tries to get back into his body, as he discovers that it has been possessed by a powerful evil spirit who has no intention of giving the poor child his body back. In the next chapter we are introduced to Cathy, years after the inciting incident. Cathy is the step sister of “Blake,” and becomes our main protagonist. The real Blake, now an exiled spirit out of his body, enlists Cathy in the battle over the possession and right to his body. And then we’re off to the races, plot wise.
I found the initial premise fascinating, partly because I felt it was plausible. I have known people (including a personal friend of mine, as well as a Wiccan who I baptized on my mission) who had claimed to have accomplished this feat of “astral planing,” where they could separate themselves from their bodies, travel in a different plane of existence, and then return to their body (although my friend from my mission claimed that she had difficulty getting back into her body, so she never attempted the experience again). As a believer in this kind of supernatural possibility, having had a few difficult to explain supernatural scenarios in my own life, Perkins had me at the get go with this initial conflict. The central premise seemed real and organic, especially from a Mormon worldview. Sometimes magical realism, from the perspective of a Mormon, simply becomes realism.
Which leads me to an interesting aspect to this novel. There is no reason this book had to be published by Zarahemla Books rather than a national publisher. Despite it fitting well into Mormon theology and cosmology, the novel has no identifiable Mormon characters (apart from some subtle possibilities due to Cathy’s family going to Church at one point and saying a blessing over their meal, but that could identify them as members of any general Christian religion, really). The novel says nothing about Mormonism beyond the subtext of the world it inhabits. In this way, it reminded me a great deal of what Orson Scott Card, or maybe even Stephen King, might write for the national market. More than once I thought of Card’s Lost Boys as a possible comparison
But back to the dark “magical realism” the novel employs. As the story progresses, the supernatural elements become more wild and bizarre, even far fetched. I had no real problems with this, as Perkins’ skill in creating these elements still created a great deal of interest in these parts of the novel. A VERY supernatural house (inspired by the photo on the cover), a sprite-like child spirit guide, magical talismans, bizarre landscapes– these all led the novel away from its initial magical realism into outright fantasy. Again, this was still good, for Perkins still made these dimensions of the novel compelling. But some of the edge was taken off in consequence. Where I felt some legitimate suspense and tension at the novel’s outset due to the plausibility (at least in my mind) of the conflict introduced, a lot of that subsided as Perkins led me into a wild (alebit fascinating) world that became less connected to the one at the beginning of the novel that I felt like was just on the borders of my own experiences.
Apart from that, however, I found very little to nitpick about the novel. Dispirited‘s transparent prose was engaging, its characters very well developed (especially a very strong and believable female protagonist in Cathy), and its plot full of twists and turns that kept you guessing. There was more than one point where I felt I had the novel figured out, only to have Perkins throw me a curveball and get me wondering all over again. The novel’s antagonist is blatantly malevolent and outright sinister (he IS an evil spirit, after all), but even with that he still seemed like a nuanced, complex character with very clear motivations. The novel had a genuinely sweet romance as a subplot, with a unique and interesting love interest for Cathy.
Dispirited was one of the best reads I’ve had all year. It upholds Zarahemla’s high standard, while being a solid piece of genre fiction in its own right, comparable to the higher end works you’d find in the national market. It’s a legitimate page turner that hooked me in the first chapter and never let go.