Evil on every page of 'Glister'

"The Glister" by John Burnside (Nan A. Talese, 240 pages, $22.95)

Though John Burnside's "The Glister" is the rare novel that carries a sense of dread on every page, the plot is eerily elusive. It seems to be about a small coastal town known as the Innertown in, possibly, Burnside's native Scotland, where every year or so, a boy disappears.

What happened to these missing boys? We wonder. But there are greater, more terrifying things afoot: The town has been ravaged by a chemical plant, now shut down. But its dirty work is evident in the poisoned woods, the lingering deaths of those who once worked there, the illnesses that claim the young. Even the teenage boys don't worry about condoms. Why bother, when the chances are you're sterile anyway?

And then there are the half-glimpsed creatures that lurk among the dead trees. One turns up at the abandoned plant, dying in a corner of the room in which a boy and girl have just had sex. "What's wrong with it?" the girl asks. "Is it sick?" The boy doesn't even know what it is. It's "the size of a small dog, with a piggy-looking head and big, staring eyes. ... It just lies there, staring at me and panting."

Evil lives here, on every page. Heavy on atmosphere, with a relentless pull, "The Glister" — like the toxic chemicals that hasten the death of the Innertown — sticks uncomfortably with you far longer than you'd expect.