PRESENCE OF EVIL by Ian Moffit

PRESENCE OF EVIL

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Best-selling Australian writer Moffit's second novel (The Retreat of Radiance, p. 496) to be published in this country this year is a literary horror story with good, creepy atmospherics, but a teasing, unsatisfying plot. The decaying Australian resort town of Danby is the kind of place a Stephen King or a Shirley Jackson would love--dreary, wind-swept, full of old ruins, ramshackle cottages, and even more ramshackle human beings. Gangs of runaway children play in WW II vintage pillboxes, psychiatric patients from two nearby mental hospitals wander the streets, and the ex-actors at the Glenn Iris Boarding House perform gloriously senile skits no one will ever see. Into all of this (for reasons never convincingly explained) comes journalist Nick Andrews, his new wife, Jan, and her young daughter, Katie. Things begin to go wrong almost immediately. It's apparent the marriage is a failure (Jan acts as if she's having an affair and Katie despises Andrews), and Nick isn't having any luck writing the Great Australian Novel. To make matters worse, strange things start happening: someone leaves a rat on their doorstep, wrapped in one of Katie's dresses, the word ""Death"" is scrawled in lipstick on their mirror, and Nick finds the eerily-preserved room of a little girl sealed in their attic. Nick discovers that the culprit is Olive Lynch, a crazy old woman who lives at the Glenn Iris and whose daughter had died in the Andrews' home. But, as the reader wearily knows all along, the real lunatic is her brother John, a fat grocer with strange, violent fantasies who preys upon children--and who has his eye on Katie. He finally does kidnap her, but not before the plot becomes a long, static holding pattern, full of unnecessary digressions, stifling domestic scenes between Nick and Jan (who is not having an affair, but an abortion--she wants to leave Nick) and standard discourses on the reality of evil. The scene in which John kills Katie and himself before Nick can come to the rescue could stand as a microcosm of the entire novel: the action has been hinted at for so long that it lacks any real punch, but the bush fire raging all around them is brilliantly described. Altogether, a book that hints at the presence of a strong stylist who needs a more original story, and stronger, more compelling characters.

Pub Date: Nov. 19th, 1985
Publisher: Stein & Day