John Fram’s debut novel, The Bright Lands, has seen a swell of support on social media from many corners of the crime fiction community. Just a brief sampling of this engaging and intelligent book will quickly confirm that this is a work worthy of that attention. If the literary works of Stephen King, Gordon Merrick, and Joe R. Lansdale initiated a throuple relationship, the resulting ménage à trois might echo John Fram’s The Bright Lands.
Set in the fictional, rural Texas town of Bentley, The Bright Lands wastes no time in drawing the reader in. Joel Whitley escaped his hometown years ago after a scandalous incident threw open his closet door. However, his family still resides in the conservative community and when Joel receives an unusual text message from his younger brother Dylan, he immediately senses that something is wrong. After increasingly incoherent communication, Joel decides that he must return home to help his brother.
Arriving on the night of a huge football game, Joel is only able to talk with his brother briefly before the star quarterback takes the field. Later, celebration of that win – in a town where football pride reigns supreme – seems inevitable, so Joel lets Dylan have his moment of glory, unaware that his younger brother, his sole reason for returning to this godforsaken town, is about to vanish.
Investigating this disappearance requires Joel to work with local Sheriff’s deputy, Starsha Clarke. This brings back painful memories for both Joel and Starsha. They dated in high school and there is unresolved business between the two, much of it related to the disappearance of Starsha’s brother Troy. It seems that Bentley has a history of lost boys.
John Fram unspools his tale from multiple points of view: of course, Joel and Starsha are front and center, but there are also chapters from the vantage point of two members of the cheerleading squad and two other football players. Through these six characters, readers begin to see a portrait of the town materialize – one steeped in tradition, proud of their sports heritage, but also restrictive and traditionalist.
Readers should be aware that The Bright Lands contains a thread of the supernatural throughout. John Fram does this in such a way that everything has a logical explanation, but the element of the unknown remains ever illusive and viable. The townsfolk seem to have shared dreams: That is, many wake up having had similar experiences in their moments of slumber. The urban legend of “the bright lands” is often a central focus even though few know what, or where, “the bright lands” are. Along with the investigation into Dylan’s situation, the hunt for this mythical “place” is the driving mystery that leads to a final quarter of the book filled with shocking revelations and emotional resolution.
This is a novel that can be read on several levels. First and foremost, it is a crime novel with a compelling mystery at its core. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for a shared generational trauma linked to the gay experience. Sexuality oozes from every page of The Bright Lands – in all form and fashion, both celebratory and salacious. John Fram pulls no punches in his depictions of sexual acts, so readers typically drawn to the more cozy aspects of the genre will want to proceed with caution.
The Bright Lands is a strong debut novel from a unique voice in crime fiction. Readers will be anxious to see where John Fram ventures next – as it is sure to be anything but typical. Here is another case of a “little book” that deserves a wider audience and in reaching that exposure just might help to alter ways of thinking for some who have never walked in these shoes, or uniforms, or jockstraps. John Fram’s journey to The Bright Lands is hard to forget once it has been experienced.