My previous experience of reading Tim Waggoner was the slick hardboiled-horror series “Nekropolis”. This new novella from Dark Regions Press couldn’t be more different, showing that in addition to wise-cracking action, this author can deliver an intense and wrenching allegory in true style.
It’s a beautiful day on the Little Clearwater river as we meet Alie and her sister, Carin, on a canoe trip through the tranquil, American countryside. As well as a day out for the two sisters to relax and catch up, it’s also an opportunity for Alie to deal with a terrible anniversary that involved the loss of her child.
When they find an apparently abandoned baby on a sandbank, Alie is determined to see the defenceless child to safety downstream. But something seems to be lurking in the trees alongside the gentle river, and bitter memories from her past seem to be out to get her.
I became snared by this superbly-written piece from the first page, and this is partly thanks to the rich evocation. I was immediately there in the canoe, soaked in the sights, sounds and warmth of the idling waters.
But it’s Alie that really drives it. This is her story, and we slowly get to know her through seamless dialogue, introspection, and flashbacks of an abusive childhood. These are just as gripping as what’s happening on the river, and Alie brings an incredible sense of humanity: its life-affirming strengths as well the terrible fragilities. I love how the author fleshes his character out in such an intriguing, slow-burning fashion.
Alie’s experiences – her upbringing and recent grief – have left her damaged and vulnerable, but also full of spirit. I quickly empathised, and a couple of moments made me proud of her. But all this is soon tempered by some genuine chills as the gaps are filled in.
Tim Waggoner has nailed that askew, helpless feeling of when dreams teeter on the brink of nightmare. The canoe is attacked by a water serpent, sections of the shallow river become impossibly deep, and these episodes of fearful unreality crank up the menace. The occasional moments of relief – such as when Alie and Carin bump into a couple of other people basking in inflatable rings on the river – are also soured. Everything feels sinister, and the author cleverly makes us experience this as reader without necessarily requiring the conscious input of our protagonist.
The literal river journey is a mirror of Alie’s subconscious, and her desperation to save the baby is heartbreaking. Carried by the frustrated pain of her grief, I became scared of where it was leading. Not only with regard to what might befall the sisters further down the river, but also the slow reveals of Alie’s past. This is one of those stories that made me want to stop because I was afraid of what I might find out, but was too engrossed to even think about it.
I really enjoyed “Deep Like The River” and won’t forget the experience – the battle of desolation and hope – in a hurry. Tim Waggoner’s voice is beautifully invisible, letting the plot and characters unfold without intrusion. This is as much a thoughtful exploration of guilt, grief and a damaged psyche as it is a rural adventure, and while the finale rounds it off with appropriate flair, it’s the journey that’s important. And what a rewarding one that is.