Gunnar K. A. Njalsson’s ‘Harper: A Collection of Horrors’ easily catches attention since it combines elements that form quite an unexpected combination – it’s a horror collection written and published in Hiiumaa, but the story in the book takes place in a small town called Harper which is located in southern California. The book is written in English but it contains some fragments in Estonian as the main characters are people who fled from Estonia to the United States during World War I. Without giving too much away it can be said that life in their new homeland is not quite comparable with a rose garden.
The book consists of a first-person narrative of the son of a family, Gordon, who tells about a small town called Harper, where his family settled in 1954, and about a series of daunting and terrible events that happened there in the years 1950-1980. The beginning of the story is promising: there’s a nice and thorough overview of the town, which, by the way, has some interestingly named streets (Shrapnel Street and Mercy Shot Boulevard) but everyday life in there is constantly interrupted by weird accidents and strange creatures. Gordon’s descriptions give a nice glimpse into the small-town atmosphere of the US horror films of the ’70s and ’80s, and also make you feel a bit tired because of the stereotype familiar from many movies, in which all the characters can see with their own eyes that something is not right, but no one ever believes the words of their loved ones or family members and everyone lives in a continuous state of denial where everything bad is definitely not real and is possible only in nightmares and fantasy world. And it continues in the same vein for decades, until everyone has found their place either in another city, in the mental institution or, in the worst case, in the afterlife.
Of course, involving Estonian characters makes this novel interesting for the Estonian readers and it has its point in the context of the plot, but at the same time, the Estonian element brings out somewhat naive clumsiness of the novel that might have been avoided with the help of a good editor. Firstly, several sentences in Estonian are grammatically incorrect or just sound really weird. It’s understandable that people who live abroad for a long time may not perfectly master the Estonian language, but sometimes the phrases are just too out of place. Secondly, it is stressed every time when someone starts to speak in Estonian. This continuous mentioning that somebody told something IN ESTONIAN makes you feel that you are reading some children’s book where everything has to be very clearly stated to be understood.
Although the author is able to create a mood suitable for a horror novel, he writes fluently and very visually and has many interesting ideas, the different pieces of the book do not form a coherent and effective whole. The story of the family progresses quite well and even has a small twist in the end, but the horror part of the novel remains a bit too monotonous, the tension does not rise nor drop, nor does it create any meaningful connotations or improvements, and in the end, it does not get anywhere. Of course, the title of the book already points out that it is a “collection of horrors”, but I would have expected some exciting conclusion (not a solution!) or a striking link between the incidents that took place in Harper. In its current form, ‘Harper’ remains just a collage of fears and nightmares where there are so many different things happening but where all the individual leads take you to nowhere.