“All stories are ghost stories,” says Cora, the narrator of part of Samantha Hunt’s unsettling third novel Mr. Splitfoot. Maybe she’s right: Our pasts inevitably haunt us, whoever and wherever we are.
But that title conjures up something more frightening than a ghost, more menacing than your garden variety dead person. Mr. Splitfoot sounds like a beast of dark appetites, a stealer of souls. His presence is represented by black pages separating every chapter, each adorned with a single white hoof print (the novel is beautifully designed, from these pages to its provocative jacket cover). We may not know who Mr. Splitfoot is, exactly, but we know instinctively we want no part of him.
Author of the novels The Seas and The Invention of Everything Else, a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, Hunt maintains a dark and disturbing atmosphere throughout this intriguing, well-drawn gothic, creating a terrain that’s familiar and yet alien and unnerving at the same time. Two stories unspool, as the characters work their ways toward ominous revelations.
The first (and most compelling) narrative involves Ruth and Nat, teenagers on the verge of “aging out” at the grim Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission in upstate New York. At 18, they’ll be dumped unceremoniously on the street, like Ruth’s older sister El, who vanished when Ruth was 5. But for now they and other unwanted or orphaned misfits survive under the watchful and megalomaniacal eye of Father Arthur.
That exclamation mark in the home’s name, by the way, denotes not enthusiasm but fanaticism: “At Love of Christ! children feel the Lord, and the Lord is often furious and unpredictable,” Hunt writes of these lean, hungry years, where Ruth and Nat shiver in a house that’s never warm enough (in temperature or in empathy). “No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women’s slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they’ve kept alive for years. Blessed be the bacteria.”
There’s a Mother, too, on occasion, drug-addled and empty-headed, but what Ruth and Nat treasure is each other. Sisters, they call each other, because that’s the only word Ruth knows that means a person who cares for you. “One twin bed. They slept foot to face. Two heads on one body, joined like a knave card. … Their intimacy was obscene.” But they aren’t lovers. Just halves of a damaged whole.
Nat, though, can talk to the dead. Summoning an invisible entity — Mr. Splitfoot — as a conduit, he conjures up long-vanished mothers for the other children at the home (for a price). Then an enterprising salesman, Mr. Bell, shows up with a proposal: He can introduce Ruth and Nat to desperate people outside the home who will pay a lot of money to contact the dead, cash Ruth and Nat can use to strike out on their own. Soon Ruth learns the rhythms of grifting, pretending to be talking to the dead herself. But she never doubts Nat’s connection to Mr. Splitfoot, even when it leads them into danger.
In the second story set decades later — the chapters alternate throughout the book — we meet Cora, Ruth’s niece, who works at a job she hates and spends too much time on the Internet. “My computer and I spend a lot of time together,” she confesses. “Like a dog and its master, I’m starting to look like it, act like it.” She’s at loose ends, pregnant with her married lover’s child, her future uncertain. Then Ruth shows up unannounced, unable — or unwilling? — to speak. She wants to show Cora something, so Cora drops everything and follows her on a trek through a feverish landscape of poverty, fear and threat.
Believing that a pregnant woman would abruptly leave home to wander on foot across New York without knowing why requires a huge suspension of disbelief; accepting Nat’s unnatural ability comes more easily because Hunt’s descriptive powers and chilling imagination are formidable. Another frustration: On occasion Cora’s and Ruth’s journey seems a bit teased out to conform to the book’s structure.
But don’t abandon hope. As Cora and Ruth keep walking, ever closer to whatever surprise (or horror) lies ahead, your patience will pay off. If all stories are ghost stories, if our pasts do haunt us, maybe they can save us, too.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.