An off-center sophomore novel by Porter (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, 2016) steeped in British folklore and a canny sense of the uncanny.
“He knows people were cheated of the story they expected. Or wanted.” So writes Porter toward the end of this slender story, which turns on a surprising twist indeed. A couple of hundred pages earlier, at the start, the first character to appear bears the unlikely name of Dead Papa Toothwort. He has been waiting patiently across the seasons, and now Dead Papa Toothwort, coughing up “Victorian rubbish,” listens for a newcomer to the village, the child of once-ambitious but now resigned Londoners who have moved an hour outside the metropolis, still within commuting distance, to get some peace and quiet. Lanny is more gifted than his Mum and Dad know, and when he disappears, it develops that he has taken full advantage of the freedom his smarts have given him: “Parents of missing Lanny admit he was free to wander the village,” scolds the press. Numerous players enter into the story along the way, including an eccentric artist known as Mad Pete, who knows more than he lets on, and an earth-mother type called Peggy, who communes with a gnarled oak chest to send a message: “I know you. / I know what you’re up to. / Give the boy back.” The chthonic spirit of the place, Dead Papa himself, is in no mood to comply, and meanwhile, as the story progresses, it seems that Lanny has a few supernatural abilities himself: “It was easier to accept that Dad was lying than it was to have no rational explanation," recounts Mum of one incident. Porter is an enchanter with words; at no point does his story, recalling British tales of the Green Man, seem improbable, even as its eerier and more inexplicable moments come faster, revealing the leafy darkness that threatens the unwary.
Elegantly mysterious: a story worthy of an M.R. James or even a Henry James and a welcome return by an author eminently worth reading.