Somewhere between horror, folk lore and social commentary, set deep in the quiet back waters of northern Finland, THE BLACK TONGUE is a book that will stay with you for a lot of reasons.
Not being much of a fan of horror stories, it's hard to explain why this book appealed in the first place. Perhaps it is that concept of Scandinavian folk lore, to this reader's mind a kind of ramped up Grimms' Fairy Tales. Perhaps it was simply the idea that there is always an unexplained lurking evil - the boogie man or the bunyip - that's designed to keep kids in line and give them a bit of a good old fashioned scare into the bargain. So who or what was the legend of Granny Hatchet all about was extremely intriguing.
As Maisa Riipinen and Samuel Autio return to the place of their childhood, their shared pasts are revealed. Coming from the same place - both these adults have a different background - Samuel is the child of one of the refugee families who moved into the area, Maisa is from more local stock. When they were children together, the legend of Granny Hatchet was well known, delivered as a part of a ritual gathering, frightening yet creating a childish bond. Until one young girl leaves the secret circle and Samuel and Maisa are left with their own secret kept until now. Will their coming together again in the place of their childhood mean that the secret is finally revealed?
The narrative timeline of THE BLACK TONGUE switches between the childhood period - and the disappearance of the young girl - and the current day. Switching backwards and forwards abruptly at times there's a sense of unease and constant disruption as a result. That is echoed somehow in the reasons for these two returning after all these years. Maisa for the purposes of research has a clarity about her that matches the childhood observations. Samuel is back to arrange his father's funeral and his sad and reflective rummage around in his past and present seems to match the current day experience much better. It's always clear that there has been a secret past, but how that will be revealed - or if it will be - and what an increasing number of disconnected characters will have to do with it all, becomes complicated and oddly chaotic.
What THE BLACK TONGUE does deliver in spades is a wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. Dark, dank and moody, the setting for this story comes across as absolutely perfect horror territory. When staying with the main themes there's an overwhelming feeling of knowing the two main characters, of understanding their struggles and their imperfections, despite the fact that the legend of Granny Hatchet does seem to disappear from view surprisingly quickly. Where it seems to fall down, is when it wanders off into disconnected, almost surreal territory for no apparent reason.
Which could be the part that stays with you (personally I'm still mildly baffled by proceedings on a small island nobody is supposed to visit) or it could be the age-old problem of kids struggling to make sense of odd things that happen to them, or the life-long affect of guilt. Regardless of what it is that stays with you, nobody could ever accuse THE BLACK TONGUE of being expected reading.