Lori, an aspiring true crime writer, is engaged in correspondence with a convicted serial killer named Edmund Cox. Ostensibly she hopes to wring a book deal out of her communications with the murderer, but her interest in Cox is far more than merely professional, as she feels a deep emotional bond with him: “In conversations with those who took life, Lori no longer felt dead inside. Killers, of all people, made her feel alive.” She even visits him in prison, where he makes a peculiar request. He asks her to visit an old hideout of his – a riverside shack never traced by the authorities – where she will find a key. This, Cox explains, she must take to The River Man. He gives no more information about this personage: no proper name, no address, no explanation as to what he would want with the key. All he says is that, if Lori follows his directions, she and The River Man shall meet.
Devoted to the serial killer, Lori agrees to carry out this strange task. Against her wishes, however, she is accompanied on the journey by her sister Abby. Although the elder of the two, Abby has a mental handicap brought on by a childhood injury and requires Lori as a caregiver; the very notion of being left alone sends Abby into a fit, prompting Lori to take her along after all. More interested in cartoons and musicals than the news or true crime books, Abby has no idea of Edmund’s crimes: to her, he is simply her sister’s boyfriend. As for the identity of The River Man, meanwhile, both sisters are in the dark – until they finally meet him.
Gone to See the River Man is one of three books by Kristopher Triana to appear on the 2021 Splatterpunk Award ballot (see also Blood Relations and They All Died Screaming) and once again, it is built around the core theme of warped relationships Protagonist Lori forms the trunk of an entire family tree of relationships gone wrong: as the novel unfolds, her crush on a convicted serial killer turns out to be comparatively normal.
The trip referred to in the title of Gone to See the River Man is not the only narrative that unfolds through the novel. Lori and Abby’s fateful journey down the river is intercut with flashbacks to their shared childhood, when things were very different. Abby has not sustained her injury and so is the more mature of the two girls; their younger brother Pete is still alive; and their parents are keeping the three in a sheltered world a long way from Lori’s adult milieu of serial killers and true crime.
Pete idolises Abby, while Lori envies her attractiveness – particularly when Abby enters a romantic relationship with a boy Lori herself desires. In one incident the young Lori catches the two of them having sex, a moment that tears her small world apart. From here, the flashbacks descend into a sick story of dark family secrets as we learn exactly how Abby sustained brain damage and how Pete died.
Although the flashback chapters contain enough salacious material to fill an entire exploitation novel, the story of Pete’s last days and the events leading up to them is treated with sufficient gravitas to become truly harrowing rather than just stomach-churning. The main characters are given texture by their abrasive past – a past that continues to impact their present.
Lori is a depraved protagonist, but the depths of this depravity only gradually become apparent over the course of the story. Our descent into her psyche is a well-constructed journey – Triana knows exactly where to position the next revelation – yet her warped personality is portrayed in a consistently matter-of-fact manner. We see this most clearly in Lori’s letters with the serial killer Edmund, where she is given the space to propound her personal philosophy. As she asks Edmund at one point, “[t]he people we make suffer stay inside of us longer and more deeply than those who we bring joy, don’t you think?” Edmund has other admirers, including a woman named Niko, but Lori positions herself on a higher tier:
Niko was just one of those bizarre people who became romantically infatuated with a killer who has been sensationalized by the media. Things between Lori and Edmund Cox were too deep and complex to be duplicated with some loon motivated by sexual notoriety and nothing more.
She knows that her love for Edmund is unlikely to ever be requited; but she finds comfort in the fact that she is not unusual, being “just like the girls who fall head over heels for rock stars who are always touring or the girls who spread their legs for movie stars they know they’ll never see again. Women had one thing that could get them close to a man who made magic, and they used it, even if for just one night.”
Meanwhile, Edmund’s letters to Lori fill in his own backstory, establishing that he too is the product of a twisted family. His uncle Zeke raped, mutilated and killed women and girls in Vietnam, and back home showed photographs of his crimes to Edmund – sending the boy’s burgeoning sexuality down a twisted path. When young Edmund later got a chance to see more conventional pornography in Playboy, he found the images uninteresting: “Theys borin. They don’t let ya see INSIDE the woman.”
Just as we delve into the psyches of the novel’s characters, Lori and Abby delve into the realm of The River Man. This journey hits a number of mythic beats, with the sisters encountering a threshold guardian in the form of a sinister elderly man in the garb of a preacher; he turns out to be the sometime leader of a local religious sect, and once accidentally drowned his own children while forcibly baptising them. Despite Lori’s early assumptions, this preacher is not The River Man – that personage does not show himself until the end of the quest.
Like any protagonist of a quest narrative, Lori is faced with puzzles and challenges. She is tasked with finding a key inside a chest; as it happens, this is not a wooden chest but rather the chest in a mouldering corpse. Before plunging her hand into the remains of Edmund’s undiscovered victim, Lori is forced to confront the facts of the murders committed by her beau:
Lori sobbed in horror. Seeing Edmund’s cruelty firsthand brought the reality of it home. It wasn’t just a newspaper headline now, not merely stories scrawled on notebook paper in the killer’s own hand. It was gruesome, violent death up close—a personal glimpse into a woman’s brutal and ultimate end.
The character of Abby, who could easily have been a mere caricature, is similarly well-handled. Although outwardly simple-minded she is given a complex internal life: she has a clingy attitude towards Lori and a (justifiable) fear that her sister will ultimately abandon her for Edmund; and her memories of the past, including the details of her brain damage and the death of Pete, are not as deeply-buried as Lori might have hoped. The novel establishes that while Abby has some childlike attributes, she knows that she is a middle-aged woman – for example, she does not take part in childish games of imagination. This makes it all the more unsettling when she begins showing an alternate personality, one derived from that of the deceased Pete; she even imitates his voice when this persona manifests.
Over the course of her journey Lori is given opportunities to turn back – back from her trip to see The River Man, back from her commitment to Edmund Cox. Nonetheless, she presses on until she is forced to confront both the ghosts of her past and the implications of her future with Edmund.
In his acknowledgements, Kristopher Triana states that the novel was inspired by Nick Drake’s 1969 song River Man. Exactly what Nick Drake would have made of this association can only be guessed – any song, regardless of subject matter, is going to take on a rather different aspect after being filtered through Triana’s world of murder, mutilation and irredeemably dysfunctional families. Nonetheless, the novel does make good use of its inspiration, its supernatural aspect rooted not merely in folk horror but specifically in acoustic guitar folk horror. The story establishes that, although a Mephistopheles figure, The River Man does not desire possession of his visitors’ souls; instead, he desires material for his music. This requires him bring out the worst in those who encounter him, encouraging them to fill their souls with pain, suffering, grief and fear – to provide new strings for his guitar.
As the novel approaches its conclusion, the characters start dropping like dominos. This is inevitable: there is no way that any of the noxious relationships dreamt up by Krisopher Triana could end happily ever after. But this time around, the supernatural figure of The River Man and all that he embodies lend an ethereal, haunting touch that offsets the stone-cold bleakness typical of Triana.