Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Harbinger Island is available on Amazon Kindle for $6.95.
Recently I’ve felt that, as a critic, I have an obligation to approach critique differently when dealing with small-scale content. I know I should allow that people have thick skin and can handle criticism, but when the creator has a high chance of actually coming across my response to their work, my writing shouldn’t be as detached as it might be for a book printed by major publication. I want to be and know most creators would want me to be honest, even if that honesty means declaring that I didn’t enjoy the work. But on the other hand, I want these small-publication or indie creators to thrive and feel motivated. Even if I’m critical, I want it understood that if I’m taking the time to write an in-depth review of something, that means I feel deeply enough about it that I think it deserves attention, if not necessarily unanimous praise.
This in mind, I start by saying that I did not enjoy Harbinger Island by Dorian Dawes. Some parts worked better than others, but in its entirely it didn’t work for me. I thought the setting was underdeveloped, the atmosphere thus lacking. The short stories collectively working into one larger narrative arc didn’t work for me either (though to be fair I haven’t been thrilled with this structure in any novel, as with Lovecraft Country and Everfair). The writing felt in-your-face when it should have felt subdued. There was little mounting tension. I liked the characters but wasn’t convinced by their dialogue and behavior.
Now part of this has something to do with the way identity is handled in the novel. Every character in Harbinger Island is a minority, meeting at underrepresented intersections of race, gender, religion, subculture, and queerness. At first I thought that Dawes was leaning too heavily on identity as encompassing the entire character. The introductions of these characters in the first few chapters came off to me as “I am X, Y, and Z, and that is my whole personality.”
To an extent, Harbinger Island can still be criticized for abrupt, unnatural-sounding introductions. But the more I read, the more I realized that the main reason these intros were coming off as unnatural was because they weren’t what I was used to. Mainstream cis, hetero, white narratives don’t demand an establishment of identity in quite the same way as minority narratives. Characters in Lovecraft or Derleth or whomever are assumed to be proper Anglo-Saxon types, and so they don’t need to declare. There’s a whole spectrum of identities in Dawes’ work and while the author does introduce them a bit gracelessly, it’s no worse than I would see handled in most pulp horror fiction. Seeing it in the best light, these intros are so abrupt because they merely serve to get us quickly to where we need to go.
While I’m still unsatisfied with how identity is dealt with in this novel, it was more because Dawes didn’t delve as deeply into their characters as much as I would have liked. I could forgive those abrupt intros if we got into the characters’ heads more, and I think we only received surface-level impressions. There are a few solid character interactions. The relationship between Veronika and Kara was affecting, since you got to see the nuanced arc of their feelings developing concurrently with the eldritch machinations of the main narrative. But others aren’t as convincing. There is a Sikh character named Dayabir Singh for example (who, incidentally, reminds me a lot and was probably inspired by an individual on Twitter who has unfortunately since left the platform due to harassment), who never really has a minute to discuss his background. “Sikh” feels less like a religious identity for the character than an easy means of communicating his appearance and persona. And when Dayabir and another character become romantically involved by the end, it feels less like a believable development than as a requirement to pair off all the characters.
Surface-level characters aren’t necessarily a deal breaker in pulp horror, of course, but in order to counterbalance lack of characterization you need good horror. The writing is solid, with some typos and awkward sentences here and there but ultimately capable and smooth. It fails however because it doesn’t communicate some of the essential pillars of Lovecraftian horror: a solid sense of atmosphere and place, and a genuine sense of terror. Harbinger Island‘s descriptions are always turned up to 11. There is no building dread, everything goes from “Is something wrong?” to “Everything is trying to fucking kill us at once”. If one thing is wrong, everything is wrong. It gets comical how messed up the setting is at almost all times, it’s a wonder anyone still lives there at all when cultists seem to be murdering everyone all the time. There is one section that attempts to go for slow, quiet dread, in which one character goes to an eerie, empty hotel to stay the night, but this section was too brief and ultimately too tangential to the main plot to make a large enough impact.
The dialogue shares this lack of subtlety. It often repeats what is happening in the action, lampshading the ridiculousness of certain scenarios when it should just be rolling with it. The result is a weird mishmash of comedy and horror, awkward to read. I couldn’t be adequately humored because there was too much fucked up shit going on but I couldn’t be adequately scared because there were too many laughs.
And there’s the narrative itself, which moves in awkward starts and stops. Returning to the Sikh character Dayabir, he begins his section of the story by visiting an historical society for the first time. He is somehow hired immediately as an assistant, and from there is rushed into the middle of Harbinger Island’s conflicts. The scene unfolds far too quickly. The historical society is seriously involved in unlocking the dark mysteries of Harbinger Island, and the character is brought in on this secret mission almost as soon as he’s brought onto the scene. A little fix would have improved the believability of this scene tremendously: Make the character already a worker at the historical society, remark upon some small weird things he’s seen, and then get him to actually see even greater and more consequential weird things. The Historical Society would then more believably trust him, and it would be a more believably paced sequence of events. As it stands, though, this is a representative example of the problem running through the novel. Again, little action builds, and when it does it goes from 0 to 11.
A great deal of the novel would be improved by these little adjustments, which is important to note because it suggests that Dawes will likely be much more successful in future writing projects, unshackled by the inherently flawed confines of a first published work, which has likely gone through numerous iterations, which causes pacing issues. But here the adjustments aren’t made and it’s up to the reader how much it does or doesn’t work for them. Granted I am much more inclined toward slow, atmospheric horror, and someone with a greater affinity for King-style all-out horror will likely find more to enjoy. It’s just a shame for me because I love the tropes we’re dealing with and I love Dorian Dawes’ ambition: A Lovecraftian horror novel for a modern, queer audience. It’s a brilliant way to carry on this strand of the horror tradition because it’s essentially a big “fuck you” to the white dominated, racist, sexless (when not explicitly homophobic) Lovecraftian legacy. Which is why, again, I want Dawes to flourish and create more work. Harbinger Island didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a promising start.