“The 13th Child” by Nick Korolev is the last in a series of books on the Jersey Devil that appeared over the last year, joining the Bucks County-based Writers Block Collective’s “The Jersey Devil: A Collection of Utter Speculation,” a five-story anthology, and the tongue-in-cheek “Naked with the New Jersey Devil.”
The author of several published novels ranging from young audience to science fiction, Korolev approaches his account of New Jersey’s state monster by using different eras, character perspectives, and legends to freshen his take on the more than twice-told tale.
Divided into six time periods, the first appropriately starts in 1735 when Sarah Leeds has her unlucky and unwanted 13th child who immediately begins a transformation to something other than a healthy human child.
The second part picks up the story five years later when the child, abandoned by his mother, has transformed into the legendary creature and is making its presence known. It is also when a hell-and-brimstone minister confronts it and with the help of God banishes it for 100 years.
The next chapter is set 100 years later, when the creature reawakens, reencounters humans — including one especially evil and diabolical individual — and reestablishes the legend.
The story then jumps to the famous 1909 series of Devil sightings documented in New Jersey and Philadelphia newspapers.
The next to the last section focuses on the Devil’s encounter with prohibition-era rum runners. And the book concludes in 2012 with a paranormal television crew and a New Jersey doctoral student encountering the living legend.
While Korolev uses the familiar story line — a mother wishing her child to the devil — and newspaper accounts, he also mixes in the Leni Lenape legend of M’sing, a guardian of the forest and innocent creatures — including children.
The result is that the Jersey Devil here is more an angel, one that avenges evil doers and guards the innocent.
He is also depicted as an all-too-human creature whose pained search for friendship is made more bitter by his unfortunate encounters with hostile humans.
For comparison, and perhaps literary kinship, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” readily comes to mind — where a human figure is abandoned by its maker and shunned by society. So does the creature in film “Bride of Frankenstein,” which exploits the creature’s desire for a friend and allows it to develop a taste for alcohol.
Likewise Korolev’s Devil is all about longing: for a mother’s touch, for siblings, for his dog-friend lost in a fire, and the attention of a woman lured into a sordid encounter by one of the 230-page novel’s true devils.
And the alcohol is a clever introduction that lightens the story and provides a logical reason for the illogical sequence of statewide sightings in 1909 — here the Devil stumbles on a moonshiner’s Jersey Lightning, gulps it down, and takes to the sky for some very drunk flying around the region..
A fun read with dramatic, humorous, and touching moments, but with some jumps in perspective and continuity, “The 13th Child” is another piece of evidence that says the Jersey Devil is alive and well in the imagination — even in a New Jersey-born writer living in West Virginia.
And as the doctoral student’s decision and thoughts at the end of the book suggest, it is a creature that is “sorely needed.”
The following “The 13th Child” sampling takes place in January, 1909, when the Jersey Devil is appearing everywhere and Trenton saloonkeeper C.C. Hill answers the telephone at his Lamberton Street bar:
The phone rang at the bar, and C.C. answered, “Hello, Red Boar Bar.”
“Hey, C.C. It’s me. You got to get home now. We got it in the barn.” He recognized Andrew Craig’s husky voice. Craig was his neighbor. Their farms shared the same fence line just across the river in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.
C.C. had a sinking feeling. “What have you got in your barn?”
“No. No, your barn. The thing, the Devil thing is in YOUR barn!”
“What? Is this your idea of a joke?” he yelled.
“No! Craig’s voice was adamant. “It’s all real. The Devil was sleeping on top of the hay-wagon; your farmhand drove into the barn. We slammed the door and shit and trapped it.”
His curiosity was piqued; he had to go. If it was true, and he could subdue the creature, he could exhibit it and become rich beyond his wildest dreams. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Leaving the bar in charge of one of the bar girls, C.C. took a rowboat with a number of eager and curious patrons across the Delaware. They got a lift to his farm in the bed of a neighbor’s pickup truck. Upon his arrival, he found his barn surrounded by lantern-carrying neighbors.
Several also had shotguns. Craig was nervously running round, telling them not to shoot unless the thing attacked. Their eyes met, and Craig ran over to him.
“Boy, am I glad you got here.” He rubbed his hands together. “The boys are getting anxious. Want to go in and get a rope on it. Albert went off to see if he could lay his hands on a big fishnet.”
C.C. walked past him toward the barn. Somehow thin the twilight, it took on a sinister appearance. No lights burned in the dusty windows on the first floor. The hayloft door was closed and bolted from the outside. He could not take his eyes off it. “You sure it’s in there?”
“Sure as I’m standing here.” He heard Craig’s boots crunch the icy drive behind him.
“You get a look at it?”
“Yep. A fearsome critter. Taller than a man and covered with black fur, sort of like a man in a bear hide, bat wings, and has a long, forked tail. The face don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen.” He paused a moment as if lost in thought. “And the thing stinks like swamp muck and booze. Wasn’t moving too quick. Maybe it got into one of the Piney’s stills and has one hell of a hangover.” He laughed.
C. C. headed for the bar door.
“Hey, wait, C.C. you can’t just go and walk on in there. The thing is dangerous.”
C.C. took the heavy, wood, slide bolt in both hands, started pulling it back, then paused. If the thing was I there and felt cornered, who knows what it might do. He went around to the side window. “Craig, have someone shine a light in the window on the other side so I can see inside.”
Craig nodded and left.
C. C. waited, peering into the dusty gloom. Then the light streamed in and painted everything in dull shades of gray. Nothing moved by the wagon that stood in the middle aisle between the box stalls. He went to another window with a different view. Nothing had been disturbed. A distressing thought hit. Maybe it was up in the loft just waiting to pounce on whoever disturbed it. C.C. went back around the front to Craig. “I’m going in for a look.”
Craig stared at him as if he had lost his mind.
The 13th Child by Nick Korolev, 230 pages, $16.95 Hellbender Books.