Vol. 6, No. 4
J. Robert Lennon writes “literary fiction,” but he’s the sort of literary fiction writer who grew up on sci-fi paperbacks and crime novels, and never forgot what the pulp masters taught him. He’s culturally omnivorous, adventurous, and fearless. Funny and unsettling are two things he does well; boring, he’s not as good at.
“The Cottage on the Hill” is a horror story, but it’s a J. Robert Lennon horror story, in which the characters’ loneliness—their disconnectedness, their inability, at times, even to speak or listen to one another—is more chilling than any of the supernatural elements. Like his new book, Familiar (which he calls “a horror novel about parenthood”), “Cottage” puts us in a world where our children and partners may be aliens or enemies, and where—the scariest part—we may not be able to prevent ourselves from hurting, terrorizing, or even destroying the people we most want to protect.
Two years ago, when my colleagues and I started soliciting writers for what would become the first issue of Unstuck, J. Robert Lennon was one of the first people we reached out to. Like Kevin Brockmeier, Kelly Link, and Brian Evenson, he’s a writer whose work can fit as naturally in Weird Tales as in Tin House—and is perhaps especially well suited to a journal like ours, which seeks to celebrate stories that slip between categories, or that simply defy categorization. With “The Cottage on the Hill,” he gave our young literary magazine and its early subscribers a real gift, which we’re excited, now, to pass on to you; by turns mysterious, nightmarish, and mournful, it’s a story that’s difficult to pull away from, and then hard to forget.
Executive Editor, Unstuck
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by J. Robert Lennon
Recommended by Unstuck
THE FIRST TIME RICHARD visited the cottage on the hill, he was in his early thirties and still married to his wife. Their children were small—the daughter 6, the son only 3—and they still believed that their problems were temporary. It was agreed that the family should take a short vacation together, as a break from the stresses of work and home.
They learned of the existence of the cottage from a man in their town, a laborer whom they hired to replace a rotting porch beam. The man told them that he had stayed in it himself, on a hunting trip, and that it was beautifully well-appointed and largely unknown even to those who lived nearby. That’s because it was owned by the gas company, on land where they held a drilling claim, land not generally available to the casual hiker or hunter. But if you called the gas company—the specific substation the cottage was near, not the main number—and asked to rent the cottage, they would offer you a very attractive rate, and allow you to hunt on the surrounding land.
Richard and his wife, Evelyn, did not hunt, but he found this strange arrangement appealing, and they agreed that the cottage sounded like a good place to get away for a little while. Evidently there was a lake nearby, and the gas company provided wood for the woodstove (it was spring and still chilly at night) and a rowboat and fishing tackle. Richard phoned the gas company substation and made the proper arrangements, and a few weeks later drove the ninety minutes to the site, which lay on a gravel road deep in the woods near a small dilapidated town.
The substation itself was a low cinder block structure surrounded by a chain-link fence, and when they pulled in at a mechanically operated gate, an attendant stopped them and asked, with some hostility, what business they had here.