There will never be a shortage of magic to come out of New Orleans –– be it jazz music, fine cuisine, or Southern literature. Christopher Rice’s new thriller novel, “The Heavens Rise,” is no exception. The best-selling author’s latest work is everything you’d expect from the son of New Orleans’ master of horror, Anne Rice.
Rice’s story begins in August 2005, in the weeks before Hurricane Katrina. Niquette Delongpre, a student at the private school uptown (a thinly veiled version of Rice’s own high school alma mater, Isidore Newman), has just broken up with her boyfriend, Anthem Landry (yep, folks really do have names like that down there). Fellow student Marshall Ferriot sees this as his chance to snag the trophy girl of New Orleans high society. They meet, they flirt, and eventually Nicki warily decides to take Marshall to her family’s bayou plantation home, Elysium. Things quickly take a turn for the worse when Marshall forces himself on her. The two begin fighting until they find themselves wading in a pool, being attacked by mysterious parasites.
Nicki gets away, but something terrible from the swamp has escaped with her. In the days that follow, the entire Delongpre family disappears and Marshall is hospitalized after a failed suicide attempt. Nicki’s then closeted gay best friend Ben and Anthem are left to mourn her mysterious disappearance.
Jump forward eight years, where a lot has changed in New Orleans. Ravaged first by Katrina and later by the BP Deep Horizon oil spill, the city is still getting by, much like Ben and Anthem. Ben is now a loose-canon news reporter who has seemingly moved on from the past, while Anthem is an alcoholic riverboat pilot who showcases his pain for all the Big Easy to see. The two have managed to stay friends, using that bond to hold on to the last shred of Nicki.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Marshall’s unconscious body, moved out of Louisiana post-Katrina, has been kept on life support all these years. Strange accidents start occurring around the hospital –– shattered windows and dead animals found around the grounds, followed by a nurse found dead in Marshall’s room.
The thrills really kick up when Marshall disappears from Atlanta, and the body count starts to steadily rise. The danger comes to New Orleans when Marshall returns, alive and well, hell bent on finishing what was started that night at Elysium. After years in exile, Nicki must decide whether to return to the world she left behind –– lest she watch it be destroyed.
“The Heavens Rise” is a page-turner for sure, and the story sets itself up for the grand finish while tying up every loose end. Kudos to the author for utilizing existing terrors –– from microscopic parasites to venomous serpents –– as opposed to relying on the mythological creatures his mother fancies. Readers loyal to Rice will see the story’s predictable but appropriate ending long before it arrives. No spoilers here, but it’s fair to say the gay character really rises to the occasion. As for the others, you can rest assured the author gives all his characters their due.
Rice has created an enjoyable tale, but falls short in a couple of ways. While he has mastered the art of emotional horror, he fumbles with the genre’s demands in describing physical terrors. As the plot climaxes, the characters’ growth, literally speaking, becomes hard to follow at times. The story’s “big bad” from the swamp is a great concept, one made more resonant given New Orleans’ recent troubles, but it doesn’t always translate well on the written page. Rice would have done well to leave more to readers’ imaginations.
New Orleans is the focal point of Rice’s novel, and he paints a beautiful yet honest picture of the city, highlighting her buoyant spirit as well as her troubled racial and political past. This makes the novel’s final plot device regarding the city all the more unfortunate. As the characters ponder the salvation of the Big Easy, they ask if their “newfound power was the only way to help New Orleans.” It’s sad that Rice chooses as his answer a resounding yes.
THE HEAVENS RISE | By Christopher Rice | Gallery Books/ Simon & Schuster | $26 | 317 pages