There’s literary fiction and there's genre fiction, and then there’s Robert Paul Blumenstein’s novel, Snapping the String, which draws from nearly every fiction niche out there. The publishers blurb, “a chilling psycho-thriller,” will definitely draw the attention of psycho-thriller fans, but what about fans of outright horror, Southern gothic, magical realism, romance, religious fiction, bildungsroman (albeit a uniquely belated bildungsroman), mystery, hard boiled detective story, adventure, or social commentary a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted?
I like Blumenstein’s concise, uncomplicated descriptions. Detailing Peyton Costello’s hallucination from an acid trip (which is how we’re introduced to our, at first impression, dubious hero), Blumenstein writes, “the walls inflated, then deflated,” which gave me a perfect visual, like something surreal out of Alice In Wonderland. When Peyton releases his distraught embrace from his dead father propped up in bed, we get a macabre snippet any vintage Stephen King would enjoy, “Then his dad’s head rolled forward and fell from his neck….His father’s head tumbled to the floor, bounced once, twice, and then rolled to a rest.” So maybe a decapitated head with its tongue hanging out and spurting blood every which way and bouncing off a bed is a bit of a horror cliche ... so what? I still like it, and it still works.
As bad as witnessing the gruesome aftermath of your father's decapitation must be, imagine how bad it would be being falsely accused of murdering your parents and spending the next twenty-two years of your life unjustly jailed at the Mid-Virginia Mental Hospital, undergoing regular electro-convulsive “therapy” and taking so many unnecessary drug cocktails that your average junky's habit might look like so much aspirin-therapy instead. Welcome to Peyton Costello’s wasted world. And never mind that Peyton does not have a diagnosable mental disorder (that’s beside the point to the vindictive psychiaquacks at Mid-Virginia); Peyton just better be sure he doesn’t tick off the wrong mental health "professional" or she’s bound to recommend, besides a frontal lobotomy, a “Second Surgical Procedure," --a castration!-- because, "I don’t see what further use Mr. Costello has for his gonads.” Makes Nurse Ratchet seem ebullient by comparison.
Does Blumenstein grind his social commentator's axe too sharply in his skewering of the evils perpetrated inside psych-hospitals against mental health patients as late as the mid 1980s? Does he go a tad over the top? I’d say yes at first glance, but since I’ve read so many non-fictional accounts documenting the abuses, how could I justifiably say no? Perhaps I could say yes to, at times, the narrative feeling mildly didactic, preachy, but it’s mostly preaching to the choir. So, amen!
Peyton’s surprising release from Mid-Virginia portrayed enough drama that it could have served a viable climax to Snapping the String, but then we’d always wonder who killed Peyton’s parents. Blumenstein compellingly keeps us in suspense, whizzing us first into the jungles of Belize, beloved by his father (and where Peyton grabs a native wife, Oriana), and on to Egypt and inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, where Peyton and his long-lost friend, Ishmael, discover the first real clues – mysterious apparitions – directing them to a holy man (or is he an unholy man?) and to the terrible secret he's harbored behind a bookshelf for years.
Some secrets might be better left unknown.