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Onyx reviews: Buster Voodoo by Mason James Cole

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/13/2014

There have been many different names for him, but he has always been a part of popular lore. He's the boogeyman, Charlie Manx, Pennywise the clown or the loup garou, and he always preys on children. He may even believe (or at least profess) that he is rescuing children from grim existences by taking them to another, better place. He may have a smiling face and a pleasing demeanor, though he's rarely seen by adults, who prefer not to acknowledge his existence. Sometimes he is supernatural, sometimes as real and as terrifying as the man who lives down the street.

Mason James Cole calls him Buster Voodoo, a name that derives from the Dixon Green's mother, a notorious practitioner of voodoo in New Orleans, a student of Marie Laveau who attended mass on Sunday and concocted potions and spells for her neighbors the rest of the week. 

Buster Voodoo takes place in two time periods. In 1948, when Dixon Green was a boy, six children vanished from the Faubourg Tremé, including one of his friends. Because they were black, the police did not expend a great deal of effort in finding them, believing them to be runaways or family abductions. Even when two of the children turn up dead, savagely mutilated, there's little interest in pursuing the case, which the cops are eager to write off as animal attacks.

Dixon has a terrifying encounter in the neighborhood haunted house, which everyone calls Empty House. After he breaks in, his mother rescues him from the threatening and perplexing apparitions. No one can help them, though, when Dixon's older sister Marie enters the ranks of the missing, and people in the community start to wonder if his mother's conjurings brought this curse down upon them. The resolution to this old series of crimes leaves Mama La Roux, as the neighbors call her, in a fragile condition from which she never recovers.

In alternating chapters, Cole shows readers Dixon in 2005 as a man of sixty-five nearing the end of his days. He was married for ten years, but his divorce robbed him of any chance to have children and he lost his landscaping business in the divorce settlement. He is a janitor at Jazzland, a theme park with all the usual rides, including a haunted house called Marie Laveau's Zombie Nightmare that has an unusual affinity for neglected and unwanted children. He struggles to maintain respect from his much younger bosses and even younger co-workers. He also attends to his sister, who has never been the same since her ordeal in 1948 and is now institutionalized. Marie has her good days, but she also descends into bouts of violence or catatonia. Over the course of the book, readers will learn what befell her after she vanished, how she returned and what happened in the aftermath.

Another boogeyman lurks on the horizon: Hurricane Katrina has her sights set on New Orleans. Much as Dixon would like to evacuate like the smart people, he has business to attend to under the cover of the storm. He's forced to sit out Katrina in a neighborhood that has been inundated by past, lesser storms. Cole's description of the experience of spending long hours and days waiting for help, lacking the basic necessities and information, are as harrowing as any other part of this short novel.

Over the course of the book, Dixon discovers the truth behind his father's death, a terrible secret about one of his neighbors, and things he didn't know about Marie's ordeal all those years ago. He struggles to protect her against the storms that rage inside her head and the one that is raging outside their frail haven. Cole paints a bleak portrait of the Crescent City, both in the past and the present, where prejudices still rear their ugly heads, growing old is as terrifying as the spirits to which his mother was so devoted, and the things that once horrified a man can suddenly be tempting.

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