Masculine Frailty and Ambition: On Chuck Wendig’s “Black River Orchard”
By Melissa Ridley ElmesOctober 22, 2023
Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig
Pulling back from the threat of bigger-picture societal collapse presented in his 2019 novel Wanderers, Wendig’s Black River Orchard returns to the small-town setting with a central family as the focal point that served as the core of his 2021 offering, The Book of Accidents. Again, as with both of these prior novels, Wendig expertly melds the literary with the genre-specific, creating a horror story that reads like a mainstream New York Times bestselling novel—except, of course, for the gore and grotesque, which ramp up in the second half of the novel after a slow-burning, albeit absorbing, setup in the first part.
In the township of Harrow, Pennsylvania, Dan Paxson has inherited a failed orchard and not much else from his father; on the cusp of financial ruin, he has planted seven apple tree scions that begin bearing their first fruit five years later. The apples are an unknown variety, so he enlists his would-be influencer daughter, Calla, in the naming process—she offers up “Ruby Slipper” because there’s no place like home. Dan is enchanted with the suggestion. Although Calla refuses to try the apples because she thinks apples are gross, her boyfriend Marco does, devouring one almost whole with such evident pleasure that Dan is reassured his investment will pay off; thus, he takes the newly named apples to the farmer’s market. Things are slow and Calla suggests giving free samples to entice customers—an idea Dan rejects until Claude Lambert, society bigwig and owner of the local vineyard, who is ever bent on reminding Dan he’s a no-one like his father, stops by the booth to heckle Dan. In the middle of their bated exchange, Lambert picks up an apple uninvited and bites into it, eats the whole apple right then and there, blurts that it’s damned good, wishes Dan luck with the orchard, and abruptly leaves.
Dan’s resentment of Lambert collides with Lambert’s inability to stop himself from spontaneously admitting the quality of the apples, and, determined to show Lambert he is wrong about the Paxson men, Dan sends Calla and Marco around the market to give out free samples. Everyone who tastes an apple is utterly enchanted with it, and further, the apples bestow incredible vitality, strength, confidence, and self-regard upon their eaters. Dan rapidly rises to a prominent position in town as their sole producer and distributor. He is invited to become a member of a secret group of the town’s most significant leaders. Everything Dan has sought to accomplish seems within his grasp—but then things take a dark turn, as those who have not eaten the apples notice the increasingly strange behaviors of those who have, and the carefully guarded source of his trees threatens to come to light. Dan’s primary focus becomes staying ahead of the catastrophe that would ensue for him if that revelation were to transpire. He calls upon the apple eaters for support and finds that they will do anything he asks of them, from spying and informing on family members to committing murder. From this point, the narrative takes ever darker turns, with a small group of people—Joanie Moreau (a local BDSM/Airbnb entrepreneur and onetime girlfriend of Dan), Emily Bergmann (a recent transplant to the area who is married to an apple eater), and newcomer John Compass, an itinerant apple hunter looking for his missing partner—joining Calla to face off against Dan and his apple-eating cult.
Enter Edward Naberius, a demon bent on destroying human society and more than ready to exploit the “nice guy” looking for his way forward by tapping into Dan Paxson’s ambition and turning up the volume on his frailty—the burning need to prove himself and make up for his father’s shortcomings—until Dan succumbs to the lure of success and power. Dan then visits upon other, “lesser” males—Marco Meza, son of Venezuelan parents and unworthy boyfriend to Dan’s daughter who is now at a personal crossroads because of an injury sidelining his athletic ambitions; Prentiss Beckman, the closeted and repressed adult homosexual scion of a locally important family who have spurned him, and the self-proclaimed watchman of his gated community against undesirables—the injuries he himself suffered as a lesser male at the hands of Lambert, deigning to allow them to remain in his community, giving them the role of guardians of the orchard, and twisting their masculinity into monstrosity to serve his aims. In this era in which we are constantly being asked to reckon with the question, If you could do anything and get away with it, would you?—in particular, through the example of men like Donald Trump, who has repeatedly gone on the record stating what outrageous and illegal things he would do and has done, and yet who has then been elected president of the United States and continues to dominate the public eye and enjoy the uncritical adulation of his admirers—this book seems in part an effort to try to understand, or at least to try to show, why and how such men rise to such levels of power and authority over others.
Dan justifies the cost of what he does through so many seemingly noble or, at the least, benign and aboveboard avenues—he’s trying to honor his father’s memory, he’s trying to provide for his daughter, apples are healthy and natural, people want something he has so why shouldn’t he keep providing it? As the novel progresses, his reasoning becomes ethically murkier—he’s only getting what he deserves, he’s only giving what others deserve. In the end, the reader is tasked with recognizing that, no matter how valid his reasons, the ends do not justify the means—or if they do, then we must acknowledge the surrender of humanity in the process.
By contrast, the allegorically figured John Compass is the moral compass of the tale, a former sniper (read: alpha male) turned environmentalist and preserver. As the daughter of a career soldier who turned to Riverkeeping upon his retirement from the military, I was struck by this similar turn from trying to protect humanity from evils designated as such by the Powers that Be to trying to preserve rare apple varieties from capitalist-driven extinction, serving, together with the emphasis on remembering that "we are not alone," as rallying cries against the corporate oligarchy that has exploited human and natural resources for its own gain to the point of near destruction and extinction of both.
That there is a crisis of masculinity in the United States has been documented for years in scholarly and popular venues, most recently Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart’s interview with Christine Emba, author of the essay “Men Are Lost. Here’s a Map out of the Wilderness,” and Richard Reeves, author of the book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, which aired on Capehart’s podcast on July 12, 2023. Emba and Reeves agree there is a dearth of public role models that go beyond the tropes of a “man’s man” who embodies the caveman mentality, and the androgyne man who eschews hyper or toxic masculinity by turning his back on traditional masculinity entirely. Between these two extremes, as both authors explain, boys reported feeling lost, at odds with the models presented to them and feeling like they don’t have a place in society. This in turn renders them vulnerable to the draw of male influencers like TikTok’s toxic masculinity apologist Andrew Tate. While obviously Black River Orchard was written well before this interview, the man at the center of the horror, Dan Paxson, is one of these “lost boys”—son of a man with no status who never quite got where he wanted to go in life, hounded by a man with great status who takes unabashed pride in his control over others, Dan is a man lost between the lines of class and masculinity, and thus ripe for influencing.
The novel’s exploration of gender then feeds into its central concern: Do we ever really know who someone is? This is the question at the heart of this narrative, in which every point-of-view character is forced to reckon with devastating behavior on the part of someone they trusted or, at the very least, thought to be a known entity. Betrayal occurs at the personal, familial, and community levels on both small and grand scales, and what appears most clearly to designate the victims from the survivors is their willingness to openly own, interrogate, and share their trauma with others—to trust, even in the face of fear. The refrain “we are not alone” becomes a rallying cry for the resistance, and ultimately it is only through working together that they stay the forces threatening to destroy them.
It is impossible to read this novel and not be immediately struck by the deep anger and even contempt displayed at the narrative level towards the clannish members of the small-town community who, in unstudied cultish fashion, fall under the spell of charismatic Dan Paxson, himself under the power of a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control, but which he has happily accepted as a means of elevating himself and his station in life. Human frailty and ambition are central themes in this novel, but it is more than that; it’s specifically male frailty and ambition, couched within the patriarchal society that rewards alpha male assholes with more power, relegates nice guys to beta male status, and assumes that anyone who isn’t at the top of the food chain simply doesn’t have what it takes because they’re not male, wealthy, and able to coerce others to their ends.
On its surface, this book owes debts of inspiration, directly and indirectly and from great to passing in nature, to literary sources as varied as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), classic fairy tales like “Snow White,” Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), and even Middle English works like The Canterbury Tales and Sir Orfeo. Wendig’s playful sensibility and widely read nature are on full display, with Easter eggs in chapter titles for similarly literate readers, such as chapter 10, “Two Bones Diverged,” a nod to the famous opening line (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”) of Robert Frost’s 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken”; Chapter 59, “How Does your Garden Grow?,” referring to children’s nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”; and chapter 60, “Midnight in the Orchard of Mostly Evil,” riffing on John Berendt’s 1994 novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which the voodoo witch Minerva states that the half hour before midnight is for doing good and the half hour after midnight is for doing evil.
A series of chapters—“The Orchard-Keeper’s Tale,” “The Golden Man’s Tale,” “The Farm Cat’s Tale,” “The Despondent Father’s Tale,” “The IRS Man’s Tale”—nod in their titles to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and thus draw attention to the social commentary embedded throughout this novel. Wendig’s frustration with online harassment—which he experienced himself following the release of his Star Wars: Aftermath (2015–17) when a certain faction of fans objected to his inclusion of LGBT characters and launched a cancel campaign including flooding review sites with one-star reviews prior to the book’s release and making threats to his safety, documented in a lengthy Twitter thread in 2018—may have played a part in the naming of chapter 55, “The Internet Is a Hell Realm,” as well as in Calla’s ongoing issues with her budding career as an influencer. (It should be noted that Wendig is far from the only author to receive such treatment, which has become something of a terrible commonplace.)
Despite its local setting, the narrative of Black River Orchard is sweeping in scope, and the horror at its heart has deep and wide-spreading roots—the evils of Europe, visited upon the United States, literally taking root in American soil with the transplanting of the apples; the generational wealth and generational trauma of those evils visited upon the apple owners and eaters; the strained relationship between Indigenous and colonizing communities; and the sometimes ruthless clannishness of small-town America. Wendig’s skill in weaving together the small and large, local and universal, personal and political, so it’s clear that they are so enmeshed that the one is informed by and influenced by the other and cannot be extricated without great effort—in fact, cannot be extricated without delusion—renders this novel a cautionary tale well worth reading in our current sociopolitical climate. His ability to tell a compelling story with lush description, humor, and empathy amid the horror renders it just plain fun to read.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Ana Cecilia Alvarez reviews Maggie Millner’s “Couplets: A Love Story.”...
Jason Ray Carney reviews Brandon R. Grafius’s “Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions That Haunt Us,” a nonfiction book that explores the relationship between horror films and biblical studies....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.