Nerves is accomplished short story writer John Palisano’s first novel, and it’s fair to say at the outset that it defies easy classification. Is it horror? Arguably. Is it a fable? Arguably. Is it a thriller? At times, arguably. Nerves also gives a sense that it may belong partly in the Bizarro sub-genre, but again it’s “arguable” and can’t quite be limited to that niche. While one doesn’t want to use the term “unique” too loosely, it is unusual and different from just about everything I’ve read in the last year. The good news is that it’s well-written, intriguing, and at times profound. To be fair, it is occasionally also a slight bit confusing, not to say uneven. But that’s okay, because when you reach for something greater, you’re taking a chance—and Palisano clearly intends to reach for something greater than the usual monster show (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
After a rousing (but disorienting) confrontation at the start, brothers Josiah and Horace, each uniquely “gifted” with bizarre abilities, separately travel back home to help their mother survive an attack by the “witch” (warlock?) Ogam, who made (cursed?) them for his own purposes. Going by instinct and an imperfect understanding of their own abilities —and of each other—the brothers pick up fellow travelers along the way. That is, they conscript allies who aren’t all too happy about their unexpected quest: Minnesota Flatts, a blues musician who's seen better days, and the video producer “Fish Man,” for instance. On the road, the company encounters strange creatures (some of which they may have been marginally aware) that exert some sort of power over the travelers—and even bestow further “gifts” on them . . . if only they could figure out what to do with them. When they reach the brothers’ mom, who by now is in a sort of magical coma, the rescue attempt includes the bluesman’s singing to her and, later, the erection of an organic “ladder” to a higher level of the universe (plane of being?), where there is a climactic face-off against the evil warlock.
While some readers will feel the novel leaves too many unanswered questions, the journey seems to be its own reward as the characters jostle against each other in interesting ways. They learn about their “powers” (Josiah can literally shoot his nerves outside his body and paralyze or kill, while Horace’s proximity alone can kill over time) mostly by trial and error, and perhaps the solution to the puzzles raised by the unusual plot is that we must after all make our own way through our lives, doing the best we can with what we’re given. Miracles do happen, but perhaps we make them happen.
Call Nerves a road novel, a sort of Wizard of Oz by way of Alice’s looking-glass—a strange and wondrous rabbit hole through which to explore some Big Themes. While some readers claim to see Lovecraft in the shadows, Greek mythology seems more appropriate, but it’s given a glancing blow. "Ogam" reversed is “Mago,” or magus, magician, and at the risk of over-analyzing might refer to—if not the Fowles novel specifically—then a questioning of the nature of reality itself. I don’t have a perfectly grounded understanding of everything the author attempts, but I have a sense that what we have is a surreal allegory about family relationships, trust, and loyalty—with the unusual “super” powers injected as catalysts into the mix. This is the sort of thing that will either work for you or not. I went with it, because I wanted to see where the author intended to take me. Patience tends to be rewarded, and the novel seems to envelop you and resonate all the more once the characters' quest is fulfilled. This is a strong debut from a promising voice in the “new” horror.