The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman
Published: 2014, Delacorte Press
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
No, it was best not to look straight at the truth of the thing. Only sometimes, truth has ways of revealing itself.
The Glass Casket is essentially a work of Gothic fiction, replete with a naive young heroine, a doomed romance, deaths that hint at the supernatural, and an isolated provincial town. Well, a work of Gothic fiction that traverses far past the line of being probably supernatural, instead becoming undeniably supernatural.
Rowan Rose and her scholarly father live in the quiet village of Nag’s Head. Nag’s Head is a town isolated from the rest of the kingdom, whose people rely on superstitions and centuries-old beliefs to drive their actions. Practical, scientifically-minded Rowan and her father don’t quite fit in with their neighbors, but it is where they call home.
Being in Nag’s Head has helped them lead safe, if uneventful, lives since the death of Rowan’s mother shortly after Rowan was born. But then changes start happening to their village - changes that threaten their underlying sense of safety, of certainty. First, five royal soldiers journey past Nag’s Head into the mountainous, wintery forest and are found dead shortly thereafter. Then, a man, a woman, and a girl Rowan’s age move into the village, claiming to be Rowan’s relatives. Because the deaths of five of its soldiers cannot go unnoticed, the crown sends the queen’s brother, along with his young ward, to aid the town in some investigation into the incident. With the influx of new people, a loss of the village’s anonymity, and an unspoken terror that comes ever closer, Rowan knows that things can never be the same.
Unsettling and atmospheric without descending into downright frightening, The Glass Casket is a darkly evocative novel. Through the journey of Rowan, her cousin Fiona, and the dangers that lie outside of their small town, The Glass Casket is fashioned as a retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red.” But this story bears more resemblance to the original tales that the Grimm brothers collected - the ones deemed unsuitable for the eyes and ears of children - than anything else.
And this overbearing sense of darkness and bleakness, tempered by rare bits of joy and hope, is where the story really shines. The unknown is always a terrifying concept. The unknown has the power to make us also question all the truths and certainties we’ve previously held, as Rowan and her fellow villagers realize. For what exactly has the power to tear chunks out of one man like an animal, and then compel four other men to lie naked in the snow and die from hypothermia? And what has the power to sneak within the village’s boundaries, unnoticed?
The gradual acceptance of the unknown, of the unexplainable, forms a large part of Rowan’s struggles throughout the novel. For Rowan is the child of a scholar and a scholar herself; she’s never quite believed in all that her fellow villagers have espoused, from when and how bodies must be laid to rest to the existence and power of supernatural beings. It’s a bit of an understatement to say the events of The Glass Casket cause Rowan to undergo some serious reconsideration of truths she’d previously held.
The tension McCormick creates here - between Rowan and her beliefs, between humans and the distinct sense of otherness - is wonderfully done. Very real threats loom closer and closer to Nag’s Head, and no single person is safe from those implications.
As a Gothic horror, The Glass Casket succeeds quite well. As a retelling, however, it is not quite as convincing. This does not tell the story of “Snow White and Rose Red” aside from a supernatural connection between sisters, one fair-skinned and fair-haired, the other fair-skinned and dark-haired. No other elements of “Snow White and Rose Red” translate all that convincingly into this novel. Perhaps that’s for the best; The Glass Casket weaves together a few tropes associated with fairy tales, but is ultimately a story that is wholly its own.
Where The Glass Casket falters the most is in its explanation and overall execution of the major conflicts. In a few short pages, the novel hopes to resolves hundreds of pages worth of tension and that just cannot feasibly happen. Any explanations given felt rushed and incomplete, and too few plot threads felt satisfyingly addressed. I am not saying that I need every aspect of a book to be properly resolved, but in this case it felt as though McCormick was trying to resolve certain threads...and it just didn’t quite work.
With a stronger ending, I could have ended up loving this novel. As it is, I still quite enjoyed it. McCormick has a gift for telling darkly atmospheric, poetic stories. In Rowan Rose’s characterization, her relationships with others, and the questions posed about what we know (and what we cannot know), there remains lot to be admired about this story.
Rating: 3.5 stars