Albert E. Cowdrey
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2008
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Novella
“The Overseer” moves back and time in telling the story of Nicholas Lerner. The “Present Day” of the story is 1903 with Lerner as an older man. He is a wealthy man living in New Orleans and working on his memoirs. Through the memoirs Lerner tells his own story as a younger man in the Civil War era. His father poorly ran a plantation until he hired an overseer to take over the daily running of the operation. Then profits came with the cruelty. For the rest of his life Lerner was haunted by the specter of the overseer, a man named Felix Marron. Eventually the story of the memoirs meets up with the “present day” story in an unexpected way, though it is only unexpected at the beginning of the tale.
So, here’s the thing. As much as any World Fantasy Award nominated story, I expected to appreciate this one the least. I was fairly sure I had read a previous story from Cowdrey (though on reflection, it may have been another author will a last name beginning with a C), and I was so not impressed that I almost avoided “The Overseer” altogether. In the end I ponied up the $5 for the March 2008 issue of F&SF from Fictionwise and was pleasantly surprised.
“The Overseer” did not grip me from the start, but the deeper we got into the history of Lerner and the betrayals and the nastiness, the more engaged I became. Every notable character in this story, save two of them, is a fairly despicable human being. They aren’t good people, but watching the haunting and the paranoia unfold is a pleasure for this story.
I had unconsciously maligned Cowdrey in my mind before I had read “The Overseer”, it was a reputation that may well have been built on someone else’s story (which makes it doubly embarrassing). Cowdrey reveals details slowly, but with each word and with each page he builds the atmosphere and character backstories to the point that by the end, Lerner inhabits a very real place – even though it is the same quiet room in which the story began.
Though the Novella category is a bit weak this year for the World Fantasy Awards, “The Overseer” is thus far one of the stronger stories with a nomination. It’s a good story, nothing that I’m unhappy to have read, but I am a little surprised it was held up as one of the year’s best.