A review of Mississippi writer Steve Yates’ new “horror story turned inside-out.”
In its slim 215 pages, The Legend of the Albino Farm flirts with genre boundaries, cross examines an extensive Irish family’s history and attempts to pin down the regional milieu of the Ozarks. With an agenda this long, the book is hampered by its concision, which prevents a deeper exploration of its thematic concerns—legacy and nostalgia. However, the concentrated plotting (centered, despite far-flung, alienated characters, almost entirely on the eponymous locale) does induce a claustrophobia altogether familiar to anyone who has felt haunted by a home they have outgrown.
Called “a horror story turned inside-out,” the tale centers around favored child Hettienne, the last descendant to bear the Sheehy name. Her two childless uncles and three spinster aunts (indistinguishable from one another in the novel’s opening chapters, though slightly better characterized by the end) project onto her all the pride they have in their heritage, as people will throw the heap of a day’s feelings onto a sunset. Hettienne shines brightest when compared to her definitely-not-Sheehy cousins, surname Ormond, whom the family keep to the side and treat like free labor. The Ormonds come from a fourth aunt, Kate, who has been cut off from the family for her “moral transgressions.” In this case, marrying into a lower-class family after getting pregnant.
The idea that melanin-deficient spirits haunt the Sheehy establishment is born twofold on a single night while Hettienne and her cousins are visiting the estate for the Fourth of July. Hettienne is 13 and has, as of late, been experiencing disturbing fits of sleepwalking, visions and catatonia, though “these strange things happened to Sheehy women.” In the night following the festivities, Hettienne sleepwalks and sees a vision of the farm’s destruction featuring “strange, sad opal children.” And, as a means of covering up her behavior once she awakes out in the barn, she pranks a trio of trespassers by role-playing that vision. Is it true clairvoyance, or a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by a small-town rumor?
As the farm gathers bad associations and upkeep costs, Hettienne comes to the decision that her stubborn nostalgia isn’t worth the trouble—she begins to remove herself and her family from the place she’d loved as a child. Her cousin, David Ormond, wants to stay true to the home’s past, although, as her foil, his argument is disappointingly one-note. In the plot’s final conflict, his repetitive speeches about the past glory of the Sheehy land fail to register as significant objections. Hettienne’s interior characterization has been so thorough throughout that he comes across as cardboard in comparison. I wish we could have been in his head, too, so that this central argument of the book’s themes could have been better fleshed out.
Yates has based his tale on a local legend in Springfield, Missouri, with details all the way down to the text of Hettienne’s writing on the wall coming from actual fact. Originally called the Sheedys, the place was sold when the last heir died to a race-track developer (becoming Hettienne’s husband in Yates’ telling). It burned down in 1980.
A poorly-reviewed horror movie of the legend was made in 2009. In this reimagining, the little-known, local haunt gets a good, ambitious, if thin treatment.
“Evil Awaits” sign courtesy of The Springfield Report.