“Violence was his first language.” – Adam Pottle, Apparitions
APPARITIONS, BY Canadian author Adam Pottle, is a novel about a nameless Deaf teen—a survivor of extreme child abuse—who befriends an emotionally troubled Deaf youth named Felix while in a psychiatric institution in Saskatchewan. Felix teaches “John Smith” Sign Language while they’re confined there, finally giving him a voice and providing agency. But Felix may not be the benevolent saviour “John” thinks he is.
This is an ambitious piece of writing. It has a definite documentary-style feel and a significant leaning toward psychological thriller—even an aspect of crime fiction serialization. There’s no supernatural or slasher fare, but there is a strong component of Gothic Horror, such as claustrophobic elements, vivid, disturbing nightmares, and multiple seemingly inescapable, bleak landscapes. The work holds tremendous impact in the vein of Stephen King’s Misery. Like King’s novel, it’s never necessary to work around the rationale that “the Horror Genre, by definition, doesn’t have to justify the horrific within the narrative.” There’s intent with every move, every scene [with one possible exception I mention later]. There’s a more profound message Pottle conveys with his story than thrills and kills for entertainment purposes only. In any event, the story had a tremendous impact on me regardless of genre classification. [Above Image Property of Adam Pottle]
First and foremost, Pottle is a gifted writer. He unquestionably understands vocabulary and how to use words to convey both action and emotion. His ability to construct poignant phrases, like “My first language wasn’t Sign. It was violence,” reveals a storyteller who is contemplative yet intentional. He wants to affect as well as educate. Entertain along with illuminate. It’s inviting; I want to invest my time.
The work is fiction, but the novel’s overall structure is quite lyrical, almost poetic in its cadence; this is endearing, but it also creates an issue on a technical level for story comprehension. I occasionally lost my focus on who was speaking and, more importantly, how they communicated, as the subject of Deafness is integral to the story. I would have preferred a more clearly differentiated narrative voice: “spoken language” from “Sign” and both from “thought.”
This labyrinthine structure carries through the novel, and I want to understand why the author chose this route. Perhaps a level of difficulty or temporary displacement is intentional on Pottle’s part as a way to textually enact a form of emotional and cognitive empathy. Maybe readers are meant to place themselves in the shoes of his deaf and tragically misunderstood characters. To feel in some small way how challenging it can be to navigate a world that doesn’t always actively embrace, understand, or provide easy accessibility for those labelled “different,” such as Deaf people or emotionally fragile children dealing with trauma.
I love the Thriller Genre, but as a general rule, I don’t read books where children are victims of malicious violence. It’s not something I can digest without negative emotional feedback—the kind that lingers. But the blurb hooked me; it’s very successful at capturing attention. I was definitely intrigued enough to disregard the listed “trigger warnings.”
Not surprisingly, the most challenging aspects of the narrative for me—and I’m sure for many others—were the scenes of child abuse: unadulterated degradation and torture. This is horror, but not to the degree of a Saw movie. It’s less sensationalist entertainment and more illustrative commentary on brutality and dehumanization, especially in relation to the most vulnerable in our society.
Textually experiencing an adult’s cruelty toward another adult is hard enough. When it’s a child and one with a disability that is exploited by their tormentors to produce an extra level of humiliation and pain, the difficulty of being an engaged reader is magnified. The dog and cage moments were upsetting. I understood the horrific nature of that young character’s plight long before those specific scenes appeared. Were they gratuitous? Maybe, but this is the only time I felt this way. As I stated earlier, during my reading, I felt Pottle’s conscious effort to ensure every aspect of his story felt prudent, so nothing came across as needless. That said, these scenes might have been visceral, cinematic experiences to readers with a more robust constitution regarding this type of textual violence as story propulsion. To each their own.
The novel is set in the past, predominantly in the 70s and early 80s, and deals with some heavy issues, especially in keeping with the time frame(s). Subject matters such as ableism, sexual orientation and exploration, religious abuse, unethical medical practices, and mental illness exist on top of the overarching themes of gross child abuse, criminality, and violence. Pottle’s writing is exceptional here; it never comes across as dated or clumsy, always maintaining the flavour of the specific eras in which the narrative voice exists. You can see where the author’s diligent research mixes with thoughtful exposition to enrich his story.
There are unique components of the True Crime biography Helter Skelter peppering the narrative, especially Felix and “John’s” story. Similarly, I’m reminded of the human lessons found within Deaf-centred works like the films Children of a Lesser God and Beyond Silence, two favourites of mine Education and manipulation. Verbal communication and Sign. Christ-complex and misguided loyalty. Wanted independence and fear of exclusion. Complicated child and adult/parent relationships. It’s a cornucopia of topical issues—then and now, all masterfully handled.
With his novel Apparitions, Adam Pottle gives us much to experience and unpack, and it’s not always an easy, palatable endeavour. It is, however, undeniably emotionally engaging. The ending is dramatic yet melancholy, and it does feel somewhat clipped. I wanted more because of my hunger for closure and a more significant sense of fairness for the main characters. It’s very complex and not always a cut-and-dry case of good and evil. But what Thrillers ever wrap it up in a nice bow at the end? These were not tidy lives, so why expect tidy endings.
A passion for inventive storytelling and a strong desire to create a space within contemporary fiction for the Deaf community—for Deaf characters—makes his work compelling, entertaining, and invaluable.