A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Secret Skin
by Wendy N. Wagner

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 6, 2021

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It must be the author or the publisher's blurb, since the cover, and every other place I search, identifies this as a "sawmill gothic." That doesn't seem to be a sub-genre within gothics, but if so I think Twin Peaks would fit the category. When I googled the term almost all of the results were for this book. If it is a collective name for a series of stories this is the first of them, and I think any others would have to be prequels. It's a novella, another in the group of four I got through a Neon Hemlock Press Kickstarter campaign. If I was to rate it solely on its prose style it would be very close to 5 stars. The overall story is not lacking in interesting characters and scenarios. On the contrary, it is brimming over with them, a bit too much for just a novella.

I've seen it described as a blend of Rebecca and The Fall of the House of Usher. I'd add a bit of Lovecraft and/or Stoker to the mix too, if some of my theories are correct. There are multiple elements vying for the reader's attention, so many it is difficult deciding which are more important. I assume the title refers to the ichthyosis suffered by several of the Vogel clan, primarily June and her brother Frederick. Apparently not by Frederick's daughter, Abigail, I don't recall any mention of that. Instead, she has the power of telekinesis at least, perhaps other powers too. Then there's the gothic house of Storm Break, built by June and Frederick's father near Coos Bay, Oregon, to be close to his shipbuilding and sawmill businesses. Most supposedly haunted houses are much older than that, going back multiple generations in one family, or multiple families. There is no mention of native burial grounds or other things that would account for the weird happenings. How and when did they start? What was the catalyst? Some things could be the product of an overactive imagination, but not the events at the climax, unless the narrator is totally unreliable. Which is always possible.

If you're spoiler averse, don't read any further. I do recommend this, even though I'm still confused about several things. If you don't mind spoilers, most of what I reveal is background information, it doesn't address the major issues.

June is telling the story. She had left Storm Break about six years prior to the main action, moving to Portland, where she teaches art at a girls' school. She came from wealth but was content living in poverty, as long as she had her art, and the opportunity to live the type of life denied her at home. At times the story is as if she is addressing her current lover, Lillian, in a letter. Other times Lillian is just one of the characters in her first-person narrative. I was puzzled why June felt it necessary to tell Lillian this story, since Lillian experienced most of it with her. Abigail is Frederick's daughter from his first marriage to Blanche, who was a second or third cousin on his mother's side. Blanche died shortly after their second child was stillborn. Frederick met his second wife years later, through one of his father's business partners. His second wife is Lillian. Frederick begs June to come back to Storm Break to be a companion for Abigail, while he and Lillian take their months-long honeymoon in Mexico. They return much sooner than expected, the reason for which is learned later. Abigail is at first resistant to June's affections, but they later form a strong bond. After June learns of Abigail's abilities, she at first suspects her of causing the weird effects in the house; doors opening and closing on their own, water faucets turning themselves on and resisting being closed, sounds of footsteps when no one is present, the notion that someone, or some thing, was always watching her.

Frederick is a puzzle throughout. He didn't want to continue with his father's businesses, but was incompetent at creating anything of his own. He was apparently easily manipulated by his mother, and maybe his first wife too. His relationship with Lillian began through a strange arrangement with her mother, and it's not clear whether he was aware of Lillian's past, or her current problems. I may have missed it, but I don't remember why he and Lillian did not sleep in the same room, but them being separated left the door open for June and Lillian to begin their relationship. Abigail goes back and forth between antagonism towards June, and later Lillian, to bonding with both to counteract what she perceives as the house hating all of them. There are quite a few other story elements I hesitate to mention, particularly the Vogel patriarch's death, and June's possible memory of that event, which she had almost convinced herself could not have been true. Her mother had always ridiculed her and her brother for being unworthy of her love. The ichthyosis was a big part of that I guess, which means it was inherited from their father. Most of the servants, all chosen by their mother, exhibited the same disdain for the Vogel children. Those who felt otherwise eventually left, spreading rumors about the curse upon Storm Break. A lot of my confusion stems from this "curse." When did it start and why? One generation doesn't seem sufficient to create the menace as depicted here.

I have a few suspicions, but won't mention them, since if true they would be major spoilers. I want to re-read this eventually, and when I do I might spot a few other clues that got by me this time. If there is ever another story in this sequence I want to read it, maybe a few of my suspicions will be verified, or debunked. As I said at the beginning, the prose style is great, hypnotic, claustrophobic. June came back to Storm Break even though her best intincts told her it was a mistake. The house, and the servants, seemed to agree. She did find love though, so not a total disaster. What she intends to do with the land Storm Break once stood upon would probably infuriate her father, but she is finally beyond fearing the repercussions of her family's hate.


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Wendy N. Wagner

October 26, 2021

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