OVER THE LAST 30 years, almost 50 young women have gone missing along Highway 16 in a desolate logging town in British Columbia. Most of these women were aboriginal and poor, routinely hitchhiking or walking along the deserted mountain road. They were coming home from work, visiting friends, maybe heading to a party, and they simply never came home. Eventually, the locals start calling the stretch the “Highway of Tears.” Very few bodies are ever found.
Where did all those women — and their bodies — go?
That’s a question that the world’s best investigative technology — satellite imaging, DNA testing, heat-seeking sensors, computer projections — fails to answer. In her remarkable debut novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Harun takes another look at these real-life disappearances and posits another kind of answer: maybe it was the Devil.
It is difficult to write convincingly about the supernatural. There are many talented fantasy writers — Neil Gaiman, Mark Helprin, and George R.R. Martin come to mind —but their version of the fantastical is always a given, inextricably bound with the entirely alternate worlds that they create. Harun, on the other hand, takes gritty reality — meth labs, neglected children, poverty, hunger and violence — and infuses it with enchantment. Her magic doesn’t sparkle; it has a dull, sinister glimmer, like the sun shining off the barrel of a gun.
A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain takes place in a small town along the edge of the notorious Highway 16. The town is depressed in a way typical of mountain towns: with few jobs, the young people there face a lack of money and a lot of free time. The novel’s narrator, Leo Kreutzer, is one such teenager. He’s smart, awkward, and part-aboriginal. He is caretaker of his ailing Uncle Lud, who, in return for the help, tells Leo stories, strange tales much more enticing than the online physics course on which the boy should be spending his time. Lud’s stories involve an irresistible candy salesman, a devil with dirty laundry, and a Snow Woman who entices children into the mountains and away from home. The Snow Woman story makes sense to Leo:
When the girls began to go missing off the highway outside town, this is what I thought of: snow and ice, a half-frozen waterfall, a flickering light, a bone-sick desire to destroy.
Harun sets up a dynamic between the call of the real and the magical, and when two strangers named Hana Swann and Keven Seven settle on the outskirts of the town, we get the sense that the magical is moving to the fore of the story. They smell slightly of sulfur; Keven Seven’s voice sounds a little like the hissing of a snake. Indeed, the two strangers throw the lives of Leo and his friends into disarray: plots are hatched, dangerous compromises are made, and disaster is obviously pending. Another girl goes missing. Of course, Leo is stuck in the middle and pulled in so many directions that he can barely keep his footing.
Harun presents the magic swirling around Leo and throughout this story in lyrical and startlingly beautiful prose. Of the two strangers, Hana, an “unblemished” and “perfect” young woman, is the more frightening. She looks up at the mountains and says, “Those hills are full of girls,” and indeed the souls of the missing women loom over this story, never really out of sight. But Hana doesn’t seem disturbed by the disappearances. “This is God’s country, isn’t it?” she says, “with an odd, faraway gaze that implied God hadn’t visited in a while. ‘And I’m still here, aren’t I?’ ”
When Hana shoots a small animal, Leo is both disgusted and drawn to her:
I wanted, oh so strangely, to feel the heat of the gun, the stink of blood, on me. If I’d been alone with Hana, I might have even said to her: Me next. Shoot me next. Even as I heard the words bounce in my head, I was paralyzed by a desire to find more hurt. It came from her.
As for Keven Seven, we first meet him when Ursie, a maid, steps into his room at the local motel. The men in town are not to be trusted, so Ursie carries a doorstop with her that her brother Bryan made to “keep a hand from easily slamming the door behind her.” But with Keven Seven, a card shark, she closes the door herself. In one spine-chilling scene, Keven teaches her to use the cards and Ursie is immediately seduced:
Oh how well he knew her! Better than anyone […] Almost as well as her mother. Her mother. Ursie tried to conjure her face, but failed. Instead, only Keven Seven’s unknowable features drifted before her, until finally he swept up those teasing cards and said, It’s time. It’s time. The dance was about to begin.
Though Hana and Keven Seven are clearly forces of evil, other demons appear in Harun’s novel, and the real are more terrifying than the unreal. Gerald Flacker, an ordinary local, has “set men on fire more than once.” Brothers chase Leo up a lamppost for being a “dirty Indian,” threatening him with a beating and later, with murder. The dark arts, mountain myths, folklore, and small-town poverty are unlike anyone else’s. Harun’s prose seems effortless; she has a luminous but no-nonsense touch. She doesn’t blame her characters’ failures on the devil — the drinking, the meth, the abused and neglected children are strictly human problems. The source of evil here is greed and desire, the inner, nagging voice that demands more, more, more. The magic of the novel itself is how Harun synthesizes the supernatural and the commonplace: the devil exists but so do foster care, absent parents, the perils of premature responsibility, and, of course, death.
Essentially Harun is interested in telling a human story, and, in Leo, she draws a profound account of the growth of a young man in first love. Leo has wanted Tessa since childhood, with a tongue-tied, unrequited love that is coming to a head as the book opens, although it isn’t clear whether this too is affected by divine intervention. Leo says, “I had gazed off into the woods, glimpsing a dance of those golden God’s rays flickering between the trees, and I had felt a roiling building within me, a longing for Tessa that made me almost physically sick.”
Harun portrays that teenage sensation as we remember it — overpowering, genuine, and, from our distant view, sweetly embarrassing. Since we follow Leo so closely, we can’t help but fall a little in love with Tessa too. In turn, we worry about her and we really worry about Leo. What will he do if she doesn’t survive the unusual and awful events of this novel?
Leo’s own human story is so strong that the existence of God or the devil almost becomes beside the point. By the end the reader may wonder if the Devil was really there, if his operatives really changed the course of people’s lives. At the end, the Highway of Tears has nothing magical about it.
Harun finds beauty in pitch black; she makes poetry out of brutality and grace out of terror. She is an alchemist, turning the worst aspects of life into gold. One of the many troubled characters from the novel describes it best. Marcus, one of the harassing brothers who chase Leo earlier in the book, wanders down the town’s main street, drunk and high from the “faintly sulfurous” smell of the town’s new members. He looks up at the stars in the expansive Canadian sky and says, “What an enormous world this night was.”
Despite all of its depravation and mystery, what an enormous world this novel was.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels Bump, Skin Deep and Spontaneous.