The Cook by Harry Kressing
Kressing’s 50-year-old novel is getting a republishing, much to the glory of its cult of fans. Like Robert W. Chambers King in Yellow, it’s one of those influential favorites that horror fans point to as necessity. And, like The Lottery or The Haunting of Hill House, it’s readily apparent why this is a classic.
Set almost out of time or place — could be medieval, could be modern but archaic — the novel slowly unfolds like a Hammer film. Conrad arrives to Cobb, a mysterious town with strange geography. The Prominence, a massive castle, overlooks Cobb. The castle was built by A. Cobb, the founder of the city, and has been left abandoned since his family started feuding. One daughter was given the Hill territory, and one was given the Vale territory. And until the Hills and Vales intermarry, the Prominence will remain unoccupied, and if they all die out before this happens, the land goes to a trust. After generations of this infighting, there remain two families: The Hills, who have twins, Ester and Howard, and the Vales, who have one daughter, Daphne. They’ve finally patched their differences, and it seems like Howard and Daphne would finally marry. Then Daphne got really fat and depressed. And now Howard doesn’t want her.
Enter Conrad, a master chef. Upon his arrival, he immediately browbeats the townfolk on the quality of their food and goods. Then he goes to the Hill home, seeking out position as their chef. And he begins creating sumptuous meals. Eventually, everyone around him begins to change as Conrad implements his influence on them.
It’s such a tight and strong narrative, it feels like a fairy tale or short story beefed up to novel length. It’s a simple and relatively familiar story, but again, that’s only because its influence has been strong on so much future horror. It definitely belongs in the same breath as Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson.
The only strange element comes from the plot device that characters become useless when they are fat. Howard could easily have entered into a loveless marriage with Daphne no matter what weight she was. Eventually, Ester, the sister, also becomes fat. And that makes her unworthy as a mate several times. It’s really, really uncomfortably odd. In the scope of the story, because it feels like its an old fable, it works, but it shouldn’t.
Still, if you’re a horror fan, look this up. It’s a very fast read and a very excellently crafted tale.