‘Eyes on the Island’ a gothic tale of biblical proportions

“Eyes on the Island” by Frank Reddy
caption arrowCaption
“Eyes on the Island” by Frank Reddy

There are many eyes on the island in “Eyes on the Island,” Atlanta writer Frank Reddy’s Spanish moss thriller, dark with biblical conflict. Scuttling ghost crabs with eyes on stalks feast on bits of human brain. The eyes of the Lord, equally indifferent, hover above remote Muskogee Island, “watching the storm brew.” It’s as if God despises his creation, and, in turn, by the end of Reddy’s short novel, the feeling that creation holds for God might have become mutual.

As a poor, religiously precocious 7-year-old, Will Fordham “prayed for the city of Savannah and all the barrier islands.” He can anticipate nasty weather, and his prophecies of catastrophic flooding, accompanied by his own violent seizures, follow him into adulthood. An aspiring preacher, he succeeds his retiring mentor, West Greene, in the pulpit of their fellowship church.

From the outset, “Eyes on the Island” is to be a trial by water. While playing with his son, Aaron, at the beach, Will experiences a grand mal episode; unattended, the boy drowns. Devastated and shunned by his congregation, Will loses himself in a cocktail of Xanax, booze and seizure medication. He begins to doubt God’s existence, or “at least his intentions.”

West Greene’s family has had a long history on Muskogee Island, an imaginary part of Georgia’s barrier archipelago. His uncle, Argus Greene, was minister for the island’s artist colony until his recent death under suspicious circumstances. Sensing a recovery opportunity for his friend, West suggests to Muskogee’s owner, the millionaire heiress Esther Campbell, that Will come over to take Argus Greene’s place.

Will is ferried to the island by the boat pilot, Amos, one of several ominous scriptural character names to appear in the book. Signs of civilization recede; intrigue and lawlessness approach. Esther would like to present Muskogee Island as green space to Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources; Arch Holdings, a Savannah import/export steel firm, is surreptitiously pressuring the city to declare eminent domain so it can seize and develop the pristine isle.

Complicating matters, Esther has a romantic attachment to her art colony’s guru, the sinister Maxwell Summerour. Fast-talking and fast-moving, Summerour is a typical masculine cult leader, a pagan charlatan pitching a quack philosophy of “discipline” founded on the benefits of a mystical agrarian system. Indeed, Maxwell seems to have “restored natural order” to Muskogee; the abundance of wild hogs and crops of tomatoes and peppers provide continuing sustenance for the colony.

Where there’s discipline, of course, there are disciples, though Maxwell regards his artistic followers with contempt. (“They have weak minds,” he confides.) Like Will, Maxwell has visions, too: “A time of great transition is coming,” he announces, though his metamorphic portent may have more to do with a transfer of assets than the Noah-style deluge sensed by Will most of his life.

Will would be ready to flee the island upon his arrival were it not for his need to rescue John, a young chess-playing orphan who becomes a surrogate son. John’s late father was a journalist for the Savannah Daily Post who uncovered the greedy schemes of Arch Holdings, an exposé that John believes got his father killed by Maxwell and his stooges.

The author’s clever insertion of documents — assorted Daily Post clippings John hides in a Tupperware container — also reveals the origin story of Muskogee’s “Crescent,” a sort of Native American henge of quartzite monoliths lined up in a semicircle on a secluded beach, off-limits except for Maxwell’s special occasions.

In “Eyes on the Island,” Muskogee’s flora and fauna are usually manifestations of evil: “vines encircled the chimney like interlocking figures pulling it toward the earth.” Elsewhere, shadows are “sentient” and clouds are “insane,” which some of us have suspected all along but never had the nerve to say.

There’s the hallucinatory natural beverage, the secret “Black Drink” of the Creek Tribe, made from the indigenous yaupon holly bush with its “bulbous toxic berries.” Black Drink is used by Maxwell’s cult in a moon-cycle ritual “meant to bring them closer to God,” in other words, a bacchanalian, pig roast, which is the novel’s penultimate blast.

“Eyes on the Island” offers old-school Gothic elements. While not exactly a conventional mystery, there’s a certain Hardy Boys appeal: Will and John bumbling around the woods trying to sort through murder and backwoods mayhem, attempting to elude Maxwell’s henchman, Frederick, who is flanked by his pit bull, Stark.

With all of its solitary theological disputation, the action resolves in Will’s act of unexpected physical prowess during the climactic flood. A fine piece of winter beach reading, the novel has little sense of humor but manages to convey great fun nonetheless. One searches in vain for some hint of Old Testament camp — it’s not forthcoming — to indicate that the whole shebang might be a holy goof, but “Eyes on the Island” is a mainly straightforward proposition, that is, until the author’s absolutely stupendous rendering of Will’s childhood vision that sells the project in its entirety, indubitably, front-to-back:

“…he remembered seeing a machine in the sky … Encased in a see-through skin, its insides were a puzzle of bones and rust. Plungers and springs pumped liquid through scabbed-over valves. Thick discharge dripped from membranous, metallic ribs. Seas of cilia propelled it through the clouds as the gears churned, slick with human blood.”


“Eyes on the Island”

By Frank Reddy

Story slug: 121816 eyes on the island

166 Pages; Fiction Advocate

Publication date: October 2016

Retail price: $17.95

FICTION

“Eyes on the Island”

By Frank Reddy

Fiction Advocate

$17.95, 166 pages