By Michael Libling
Hollywood North is a terrific novel about growing up in mid-century Trenton, Ontario, but it’s also a great deal more than that.
Michael Libling proceeds by way of subtlety and misdirection. On the face of it, Trenton in the late 1950s and early 1960s seems like a dark idyll from the pages of Stephen King, with a gang of kids – narrator Gus, buddy Jack, and budding love interest Annie – slowly becoming aware of something sinister going on in town.
It seems a lot of accidents and disappearances have been happening in Trenton, going back nearly a hundred years. Adults, however, are curiously apathetic, if not hostile, to the gang’s investigations. Is Pennywise the Clown up to his old tricks? Or does this all have something to do with Trenton’s brief incarnation as a movie hub, dubbed Hollywood North, back in the days of silent film? Perhaps the cache of silent-film title cards that Jack discovers holds a key to the mystery.
Or perhaps there’s no mystery at all. Movies are, like the idylls of childhood, illusions. As we get older both fade from our memories, or are reimagined as something less dramatic.
Hollywood North is a coming-of-age story like no other, masterfully using the guise of supernatural horror to wrap its poison pill. Childhood idealism gives way to deceit. We give up the freedom of youth for weary resignation to the inscrutable and mostly grim workings of fate. Cold revenge is not a dish to be enjoyed but only a petty and bitter satisfaction. Dreams are a source of regret, and their loss a welcome oblivion.
That probably sounds rather downbeat, but while Hollywood North is a dark fantasy it’s presented in such a lively way, right down to the book’s delightful interior design elements, that you don’t notice the darkness falling until the curtain is pulled on The End. The writing has an immediacy and power of observation that tears the reader through the story like a dangerous set of rapids leading into a whirlpool of horror.
The psychological and emotional business of growing up is a familiar theme in fiction, but it’s rarely been handled with this much sophistication while being so entertaining in the bargain. The balancing of pop, or pulp, fiction with profundity is hard to maintain, but Libling makes it seem easy. As a novel containing history, real and imagined, we might even say the epic of Trenton has arrived.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, December 20 2019.