Eye Lake Book Club Guide

Eye Lake by Tristan Hughes | Reading Guide | Coach House Books

The novel opens with Eli O’Callaghan dipping his fishing lure into the water of Eye Lake and snagging it on a castle, the now-underwater pine-log mansion that his grandfather, Clarence O’Callaghan, built before he disappeared. Eli is the last living member of Crooked River’s founding family. On the eve of its centennial, the once-prosperous town is now in decline. The iron-ore industry, for which the river was diverted years earlier, has petered out, and the water is slowly returning to its original source, revealing the wreckage of sunken trees and buried secrets. The town is also beset by mysterious disappearances, past and present, all of which have some connection to Eli. First there was Clarence, Crooked River’s pioneer founder, who fell in love with a travelling circus performer, built a castle in her honour and vanished without a trace. Then there was George McKenzie, Eli’s childhood best friend, who, before disappearing, was shut indoors by his father, Joseph. And in the present day, Bobby, the youngest member of the entrepreneurial Bryces – the family that brought the extractive industry to Crooked River – has gone missing too. The novel moves back and forth between memories and reality, as Eli attempts to come to terms with the traumas of the past while helping Bobby’s mother, Sarah, work through the crisis of the present.

The Gothic Novel

The Gothic Revival was an eighteenth-century European architectural movement in which designers rebelled against the utilitarian aesthetic of the age by imitating the looming spires, pointed arches and battlement brickwork of medieval castles. The gothic novel soon emerged as a literary cousin of the Revival, capitalizing on the awe-inspiring and creepy effects of the architectural structures. Gothic novels melded horror and romance, while incorporating themes of violence, sadism, insanity and occasionally the supernatural. Unlike the fantasy genre, gothic literature was less about creating alternative worlds than about imbuing the existing world with an added level of eeriness. Although rooted in late-eighteenth-century England, gothic literature gained a second life in the American south as authors like Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner infused the genre with American idioms and cultural references.

In Canada, the Ontario gothic has taken on a life of its own, with books like Timothy Findley’s Last of the Crazy People, about a Southern Ontario family battling alcoholism and insanity, or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which revisits the life of Grace Marks, the infamous nineteenth-century murderer. Canadian gothic fiction draws on the emptiness and isolation of the landscape, as well as themes of moral and religious hypocrisy.

In Eye Lake, you can see traces of the gothic in the character of Joseph McKenzie, with his cruel, inexplicable treatment of his son. Or in the tale of a town in decline, with its many unsolved mysteries. Or in the narrator’s obsession with ruined buildings, abandoned mineshafts and the eeriness of the natural environment. The Ontario landscape isn’t dotted with medieval-style castles and monasteries, but, for Canadian gothic writers, it has a creepiness all its own. Consider the following passage from Eye Lake:

‘I passed by where the mine buildings had once been; they were mostly gone but there were two still standing. They were made of corrugated iron and there were holes in them everywhere from where people used them for shooting practice. Beside them were wide, shallow pools of reddish water where not even a single bird sat on the surface or flew above. You couldn’t feel a breeze or flutter of wind anywhere – it was like nature had stopped breathing or something, like its lungs were full of holes like everything else here was.’

White Otter Castle

White Otter Castle is a three-storey pine log cabin with a looming four-storey tower, located on the shore of White Otter Lake. The structure was home to its builder, Jimmy McQuat, an eccentric logger, fisherman and fur trapper, known locally as the Hermit of White Otter Lake. Over the course of a decade, McQuat cut, carried, hewed and raised each of the logs on his own. Legend has it that McQuat’s mother used to scold him, claiming that he’d never make it in the world and would one day die in a shack. In reality, McQuat died outdoors, under mysterious circumstances, while on a winter fishing expedition shortly after completing the castle that had consumed the latter part of his life. He’s remembered as having been immensely proud of his eccentric home, and also burdened by his mother’s words. ‘Ye couldn’t call this a shack, could ye?’ he’d say defensively, to anybody who’d listen. ‘An’ I built it all myself.’

As a monument to McQuat’s vanity, ambition and eccentricity, the castle remains a popular attraction for those who are willing to boat out to its remote location. It is also the main inspiration for Clarence O’Callaghan’s castle in Eye Lake. In an interview with Coach House, Hughes explained his fascination with the structure: ‘I’m intrigued by buildings that don’t have their origin in anything practical or pragmatic – that are built out of love, or ambition, or faith, or madness … or just because. There is something baffling and tragic – and oddly noble – about the quixotic endeavours of builders like Clarence.’

Discussion Questions

• Near the novel’s beginning, Eli says: ‘In my experience most water is like a good dog: give it time and it’ll find its way home, back where it belongs.’ Eli comes back to this metaphor several times in the story. What does Eli’s refrain about returning home mean in a novel about loss, departure and abandonment?

• One of Eye Lake’s most sinister characters is Joseph McKenzie, the former schoolteacher who torments his son, George, with stories about the apocalypse, and then uses these tales to incarcerate the boy in an underground bomb shelter. Why do you think McKenzie acts the way he does?

Eye Lake is a story about industry: its successes, its failures, its costs and its ultimate decline. It’s also about the weird pathology that prompts industrious people to work harder and harder, sometimes on completely futile projects like Clarence’s castle. What is Hughes trying to say about industry?

• Why do you think Hughes decided to tell his story through Eli?

• There is sometimes a gulf between what Eli says and what he knows, or between what he knows and what’s really going on. It’s up to the reader to sort out these various discrepancies in order to get at the story. What kind of strategies did you use to decode Eli’s version of events?

• Is the novel nostalgic or cynical about small-town life?

• Is the natural world redemptive or menacing in Eye Lake?

• Nobody ever visits the Crooked River museum. And yet Gracie and Tom continue to keep it open. Why?

• We find out, toward the end of the novel, that Eli knew a lot more than he let on about George McKenzie’s disappearance. Why do you think Eli kept his side of the story secret for such a long time?

• ‘A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye …’ What do you make of this epigraph from the legendary American individualist and social critic Henry David Thoreau? How does the epigraph relate to the novel?

• Can you think of any buildings you’ve encountered that are like Clarence’s castle? What makes these structures so fascinating?

• Eli’s story is infused with references to mythical (or mythologized) places like Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and also Bad Vermillion and Eye Lake itself. What role does myth play in Hughes’s novel?

• What do you make of Eli’s declaration that ‘There’s nowhere more quiet than places that were once loud’?

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