Still reeling from the sudden death of his wife a few months prior, bestselling horror author Gavin Corlie decides to get away from it all by moving from New York City to the small town of New Mannheim in upstate New York.
Based on a photo and nothing more, Corlie purchases a huge, old house on the shore of Lake Caldasac, not knowing the reason the property has been vacant for decades is because there are rumors it is haunted.
In fact, Lake Caldasac itself seems to be cursed, with an alarmingly high number of people–both locals and tourists–disappearing while out on the lake. Local fishermen are so wary of the lake, they’ve given up fishing it entirely. All but one, that is.
Thirteen-year-old Finn Horn lives and breathes fishing. He doesn’t let the fact he’s wheelchair-bound slow him down, going out daily in his specially modified skiff. He particularly likes fishing on Lake Caldasac, and doesn’t understand why everyone else stays off the lake–until the day his boat capsizes and he nearly drowns.
Having seen Finn, complete with his trademark bright red sombrero, out on the lake early in the morning on the day of his accident, Corlie takes an interest in the boy and goes to visit him in the hospital when he learns of the near-fatal event. Upon arriving at Finn’s room, he’s surprised to learn that Finn not only knows who he is, but that Finn assumes he’s there because of what happened on the lake…after all, wouldn’t a famous horror author be interested in a real live monster?
As the two form an odd friendship, Corlie slowly comes to believe there may be more to Finn’s story of a lake monster than just a hallucination brought on by almost drowning and hypothermia. As he begins poking around, Corlie discovers the string of people who disappeared–or were found incredibly mauled–on the lake. He also discovers that both the town’s sheriff and medical examiner, as well as their predecessors, seem to be actively covering up the deaths, writing them off as boating accidents or simple drownings. Corlie’s suspicions are heightened further when he and Finn meet another who claims to believe in the monster, a cranky, weathered antiques dealer/fisherman named Duffy. The three form an unlikely alliance and vow to get to the bottom of Lake Caldasac’s mystery monster.
There’s no denying that Mannheim Rex gives a hat tip to some well-known works: from the cover’s nod to The Deep, to Duffy’s shades of Quint from Jaws, to Finn’s near Captain Ahab level of obsession with besting the beast of the water that nearly killed him, there are familiar elements scattered throughout. For a book built around the hunt for a creature, however, apart from an intense appearance to open the book–told, interestingly, from the creature’s point of view–the creature actually takes a backseat to the humans for the most part.
Indeed, the true payoff in Mannheim Rex comes from watching the relationships author Robert Pobi builds between the characters develop. Both Corlie and Finn are damaged goods–Corlie psychologically, Finn physically–but through their bonding over the search for the creature they help one another prosper despite their limitations. Corlie begins to climb out of his depressive funk, truly enjoying life once again, while Finn is able to forget for awhile about his deteriorating health, instead dreaming of the immortality he’s sure he’ll attain when they catch the creature. There’s also a budding romantic relationship for Corlie in the form of Finn’s physician, who happens to be significantly older than Corlie, which is a refreshing change of pace to read.
And while those relationships demonstrate the best of human nature, there’s another character who inarguably personifies the very worst humans are capable of. Sheriff Xavier Pope is quite possibly the nastiest, most irredeemable character I’ve ever come across–I’ve read about serial killers, real and fictional, who were more sympathetic than Pope is. (No accident, I’m sure, that a man who personifies evil was ironically given the surname Pope.) Just when you think he can’t do anything worse…he does. A lot worse. A mountain of a man, he pops bennies like candy, has contempt and loathing for seemingly everyone around him–especially women and rich people–and thinks nothing of indulging his every sexual or sadistic whim, usually under color of law. He’s a walking, talking argument that the biggest monster in New Mannheim does not live in the lake.
It all adds up to a very different story than Pobi presented in his debut, the serial killer novel Bloodman, but one which is every bit as engaging. One bit of fair warning, however. If you’re the type who likes your prose lean this book may not be for you, as it clocks in at a hefty 512 pages.
Mannheim Rex is available from Thomas & Mercer (ISBN: 978-1612184487).