Book: “The Bright Lands” by John Fram
Publishing Info: Hanover Square Press, July 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: The town of Bentley holds two things dear: its football, and its secrets. But when star quarterback Dylan Whitley goes missing, an unremitting fear grips this remote corner of Texas.
Joel Whitley was shamed out of conservative Bentley ten years ago, and while he’s finally made a life for himself as a gay man in New York, his younger brother’s disappearance soon brings him back to a place he thought he’d escaped for good. Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark stayed in Bentley; Joel’s return brings back painful memories—not to mention questions—about her own missing brother. And in the high school hallways, Dylan’s friends begin to suspect that their classmates know far more than they’re telling the police. Together, these unlikely allies will stir up secrets their town has long tried to ignore, drawing the attention of dangerous men who will stop at nothing to see that their crimes stay buried.
But no one is quite prepared to face the darkness that’s begun to haunt their nightmares, whispering about a place long thought to be nothing but an urban legend: an empty night, a flicker of light on the horizon—The Bright Lands.
Review: I went to a high school with a pretty terrible football team. And hey, sports weren’t really the point of this academic institution, but it was pretty funny that we were a few blocks away from one of the most elite sports schools in the state, while we just crashed and burned on the football field repeatedly. I went to one football game my entire high school career, and I only went because the guy I had a crush on was going. Oddly enough, that was one of the few games we won during my high school time. So I really don’t connect to the high school football worship that I hear about, but I absolutely know that it is a THING and that I am not interested in it at all. Enter “The Bright Lands” by John Fram, a small town with secrets (and a high school football obsession) horror novel that takes on not only urban legend scary story themes, but also a dismantling of homophobic and toxic masculinity culture. It really succeeds at the latter. The former, on the other hand, leaves a bit to be desired.
Our protagonist (well, one of many, but we’ll get there) Joel is a gay man who fled his small Texas town of Bentley after his sexuality was exposed in a very public and demeaning way. While hasn’t gone back and has been living it up in New York City, his younger brother Dylan, star of the football team, is his tie back to his home. So when Dylan reaches out via text and sends him strange and disturbing messages, Joel goes back, hoping to help his brother…. who then disappears. This is the bare bones of this book: a gay man who has to return to the town that inflicted great pain on him in hopes of saving his brother, and unbeknownst to him that the town is living with a dark secret that has been feeding off of young men for decades. As Joel digs into the mystery, he is once again steeped in the small town football craze, how the football players get away with a lot, and how gay people like him are harassed and brutalized by the community. Fram really presents how a town that prides itself on community and family values can be so harmful to LGBTQIA+ people, and how gay men will go to many lengths to hide who they are, or to suppress it with terrible consequences. I also liked seeing how he took the idea of the small town football obsession and examined how the value placed upon it and those who play it (who then are rarely held accountable for when they do bad things) can be unfair at best, and incredibly damaging at worst. The town places football on a pedestal that it will do anything to keep the secrets and wrongdoing of those involved hidden, and anything to keep them happy. All of this I really, really liked.
What didn’t work as well in “The Bright Lands” were the huge cast of characters, and a supernatural plot line that felt a bit neglected. I went in thinking that Joel was going to be the main person we followed. Then there was also Clark, Joel’s high school girlfriend (and unwitting beard) who is now a local cop who is pulled into Dylan’s disappearance and all that comes after. I could handle two, as both Joel and Clark work well together, they have a connection that has a bit of conflict, and they play well off each other characterization wise. But then there are a slew of other characters we follow, from football players to girlfriends to suspects and others, and it makes for a lot of perspectives that jump around a lot. Had we been more focused on Joel and Clark, I feel like I would have followed it a bit better, but as it was it felt like not enough attention was paid on most of the people we were following. On top of that, there is definitely an urban legend/supernatural element to this tale that makes it more of a horror novel than a thriller, involving some kind of being or creature that Clark had been told about by her mother when she was a girl, and Joel had potentially seen in passing one crucial night in his youth. And while it does, ultimately, focus in on this element by the end, it’s so few and far between in the build up that it feels more tacked on than anything else. It was a shame, because there was a lot of potential there that just wasn’t quite realized.
“The Bright Lands” has things that work and things that don’t, but I’m definitely interested in reading more John Fram in the future. Still not interested in the high value placed on high school football you see from time to time.
Rating 6: A really good examination of homophobia and toxic masculinity within a community filled with secrets, but too many characters and not enough monster moments.