Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
Necon founder Bob Booth made it clear on his various writers’ panels over the years that he saw the novella as the ideal format for a horror story. Booth, who sadly passed away last year after a battle with lung cancer, thought it the perfect length to tell a terror tale.
And so it only stands to reason that Booth would choose to tell the story of Buddha Hill in the form of a novella.
Booth wrote Buddha Hill two decades ago, in 1986, when he was in his forties, and it was based on his experiences while serving in Vietnam in the 1960s, when he was in his twenties. The manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty some-odd years before it was re-discovered by his son Dan, and upon Dan’s prompting, Bob finally decided to publish it.
I for one am glad he did.
Buddha Hill tells the story of a young 21 year-old American soldier from Rhode Island who is serving in Vietnam. He quickly learns the ins and outs of how to survive on Bien Hoa Air Force Base located just outside Saigon. His daily life on the base is stressful as horrific pandemonium and uncertainty surround him on all sides. He also learns of the Buddhist Monks who inhabit a place known as Buddha Hill. There is something strange going on there, and he is warned by his buddies in the know to keep away from the place.
The story of Buddha Hill follows this young soldier as he tries to survive in Vietnam. In the process, he pursues a relationship with a young Vietnamese prostitute. All the while, Buddha Hill looms mysteriously in the background, an ominous reminder that there’s something supernatural going on out there in the jungle, something frightening, and something very deadly.
With the ever intensifying war closing in around him, and the mystical monks manipulating in the shadows, the soldier begins to wither under the weight of paranormal pressure, struggling to tell what is real and what is imagined.
My favorite part of Buddha Hill is that Booth nails the atmosphere of wartime Vietnam. Booth obviously takes from his firsthand experiences in Vietnam, and this novella is all the better for it. He brings you into the heart of the jungle, into the heat of Vietnam, so much so you can almost feel the humid moisture on your brow. Booth also captures the fear these soldiers felt serving in a foreign land and culture halfway across the world. The story is frightening even without its supernatural elements.
That being said, Buddha Hill is definitely a quiet horror tale. This is a novella of mood and atmosphere, not of spilled blood and violence. As such, it works. The mysterious monks at Buddha Hill remain spookily in the background, subtly affecting those around them, especially the impressionable American soldiers.
As a novella, Buddha Hill is quick and efficient. There’s no fat on these bones. Author Booth gets in, tells his story, and gets out.
Buddha Hill is a moving, chilling tale of the supernatural amidst the backdrop of the volatile jungles and cities of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It’ll get under your skin and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.