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Literature / The Gathering

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"Sometimes you get a feeling about a thing that you can't explain; a premonition of wrongness. Mostly you ignore it the way you would a little kid tugging at your sleeve. You think: what do kids know anyhow?"

The Gathering is a young adult horror/fantasy novel by Isobelle Carmody. Unlike many of her more famous works, The Gathering is set in the real world, specifically 1990s Australia. It follows teenage protagonist Nathaniel Delaney, who has recently moved with his mother to the seaside town of Cheshunt. This is only the latest of many moves they've made throughout Nathaniel's life, and he's not too happy about it.

Nathaniel develops an instant dislike for their new home, and it doesn't help that his new school, Three North, stinks due to its proximity to an abbattoir. He may have a point, however, for things are far from right in Cheshunt. It may seem pleasant and peaceful, but it's a growing but indefinable threat: Its citizens are cowed into obedience, its students discouraged from expressing any acts of individualism, the police and governing bodies are all under the control of the school's rather creepy headmaster, Mister Karle, and the teachers have some frankly disturbing ideas about ants being a higher lifeform than humans. A long time ago, the town was the site of an act so terrible that its aftereffects have permanently "bruised" the earth, and the shadows of malevolence still echo into the present day. Several decades earlier an attempt was made to quench the evil once and for all. It didn't turn out well, and now the cycle of evil is reaching its peak once again.

Three North's students are "encouraged" to join a local youth club named The Gathering which of course, is also not what it seems, and refusals are not taken well. Within weeks of arriving, Nathaniel stumbles on a meeting of three students from Three North: Danny Odin, Indian Mahoney and Nissa Jerome. A fourth member, Seth Paul, a school prefect, is not present. The group is known as The Chain, and they tell Nathaniel they have been brought together by the "forces of light" to fight against the deep evil in Cheshunt heralded by Mr. Karle (whom they refer to as "The Kraken"). When Nathanial is caught and questioned by The Chain, they are all informed by the group's prophetic guide, Lallie, that Nathaniel has chosen to answer "The Call". He is the final of the chosen members of their group, and his arrival heralds the beginning of their battle. They must find and obtain several symbols which will be essential in their task to "Heal the sorrowing earth" and restore balance to Cheshunt. But before they're able to do that they need to face up to the darkness inside each of them, and The Kraken, not to mention most of the town, are all rising up in force against them.

Many themes are portrayed in this novel including: good vs evil, inner struggle, human nature, conformity vs individuality, friendship and cooperation. A TV series has apparently been in Development Hell since 1997.

Not related to the Highlander franchise's concept of the same name or the Magic: The Gathering card game and related media.

Provides examples of:

  • Agent Scully: Nathaniel is this somewhat. He is described as "a thinker", and thinkers apparently aren't very good at just accepting things they can't explain, like prophet children and evil bruising the earth. While Nissa started out as sceptical too she's changed her mind completely by the time Nathaniel arrives in Cheshunt. Thus they have a good understanding of one another as "thinkers" and generally end up playing the thinking roles.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Cheshunt has been subject to several of these throughout the years. The current storyline is only the latest.
  • Animal Motif: Almost all of the main characters are associated with animals, presumably in symbolism related to their characters, but also to demonstrate their willingness to go against the wishes of the corrupt Cheshunt leaders. Nathaniel's is a salmon (to represent his willingness to 'swim upstream' against peer pressure), Nessa's is a wild cat (representing her need to balance strength with kindness), Indian's is the bear (strong, but unwilling to act unless threatened), and Danny's is the wild dog (the animal he became in order to survive in a world filled with far worse animals). Only Seth lacks an obvious motif though it's arguable that he's meant to represent humans.
  • As Long as There Is Evil: The Chain may have healed Cheshunt but the protection only lasts as long as they and their actions are recalled, leading to Nathaniel writing the story down. Evil in general will always exist in the world. Our duty is not to give in to it.
  • The Atoner: Indian, who blames himself for the brain damage his younger sister suffered after an accident while under his care.
  • The Bad Guys Are Cops: Most of the town of Cheshunt is a member of the Community Committee, a group ostensibly designed to improve the lives of those in the formerly violent town. However because Cheshunt draws people to it 'via the best or the worst in them', most of the policemen have been overcome by their own power, and pretty much everyone is under the Kraken's thumb without even realising it.
  • Broken Pedestal: The seemingly "perfect" Seth Paul seems able to do no wrong but in reality he's being pressured so much by his policeman father to join The Gathering and conform, not to mention the implied abuse, that he snaps under the pressure and attempts to commit suicide halfway through the book. Does a Face–Heel Turn which doesn't last long on the Chain.
  • Children Are Special: Nathaniel theorizes that the reason teenagers, rather than adults, were chosen to become The Chain was that children are more able to accept the idea of actual bonafide evil existing, as well as actions being the product of human nature and choice.
  • Domestic Abuse: Nathaniel's father is eventually revealed to have been this, and the reason behind why Nathaniel's mother moved him so frequently after their divorce. Nathaniel has mentally blacked out his memories of the abuse, which culminated in his father's failed attempt to kill him.
    • It's implied that Seth's father is the same.
  • Dreaming of Times Gone By: Nathaniel dreams about Ana Galway, and Zebediah who later turn out to have been members of the original chain, as well as Lallie as a young woman rather than the small child they know her as, thus proving she's Really 700 Years Old.
  • Easily Forgiven: Seth when Nathaniel realizes exactly what it was that broke The Chain the last time someone tried to cleanse Cheshunt of evil. The power of The Chain is only as strong as it's weakest member; by forgiving Seth and welcoming his back they complete the Chain anew and finally banish the evil from Cheshunt.
  • Enemy Within: Each member of the chain has their own personal demons to deal with before they can successfully complete their mission. These manifest as their strengths and weaknesses. Nissa, for example, is strong willed and courageous, but runs the risk of stubbornness becoming cruelty. Danny became a "wild boy" to survive in a harsh, uncaring world, but needs to learn forgiveness, Indian is an extreme pacifist, but needs to learn when to fight, and Nathaniel has to understand the importance of companionship and accepting other people.
  • Foreshadowing: All over the goddamn place. In particular the science teacher's use of ants as a metaphor for the behavior the Kraken wishes to see in humanity.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Or rather, Chain Forged (Lallie describes the symbols as literally forging the group together). This is further cemented later in the book while rescuing Seth from his attempted suicide at the beach.
    • Nathaniel and Danny also become somewhat fireforged after Nathaniel comes to Danny's defence when he's cornered by members of the Gathering.
  • Gentle Giant: Indian, to a degree.
  • Good Hurts Evil
  • Good is Not Nice: Danny's motivation for punching a younger member of The Gathering when he and Nathaniel are confronted. Nathaniel is shocked because the youngest child had seemed the most afraid and quiet of the group that attacked them, and was only "going along with them" out of fear. Danny points out that the youngest boy is a new recruit to the Gathering and is probably there because he's afraid and thinks he'll be protected by conforming. By attacking him Danny showed him that he would gain no protection from surrendering his morality.
  • The Heart: Turns out to be Nathaniel's role in the chain.
  • Hidden Depths: Just about everyone. One of the points of the book is that most people are more than they seem and you have to try and understand things from other perspectives.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: All of The Chain's symbols turn out to be obvious items (it's believed their very nature hides them from the Kraken). Indian's bowl is on display in a maritime museum, Nathaniel finds his circle sitting on a desk in the Kraken's office, Nissa's sword falls out of her bag in the middle of the schoolyard and nobody pays it any notice and so on.
    • Also, the location of the Healing which they spend most of the book trying to figure out. it turns out to be the abattoir: the source of the pervading smell of death that covers all of Cheshunt.
  • History Repeats: The cycle of darkness in Cheshunt will begin all over again after the last attempt to heal the bruised earth several decades ago failed because the original Chain couldn't reconcile after one of them agreed to go down for a murder he did not commit.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Played with but interestingly not subverted. The evil in Cheshunt is real and highly manipulative, literally "calling" people there, but it's feeding on the darkness and cruelty that already exists in the human psyche. Several people, such as the Chain, are drawn to Cheshunt by the good in them rather than the bad.
  • Ironic Echo: Early after meeting him in person in the attic, Nathaniel describes Seth Paul as looking like one of those "perfect people you see on coke ads". Later on, during the scene at the beach, he's seen with a coke bottle that appears to confirm Nathaniel's mental image... until you realise that the bottle is filled with whisky, revealing his problems for the first time and Seth's about half a chapter away from trying to kill himself.
    • Danny is described as the school's resident mad dog, someone who seemed to have been "raised by dogs, who doesn't quite know how to act around people". Later on when we find out about Danny's Dark and Troubled Past, Danny reveals himself to be a bit more philosophical than that, comparing human behaviour to violent animals. He became an animal himself so he could cope. Nathaniel doesn't entirely agree with Danny's assessment of humans behaving like animals, because humans are the only animals that attack, hurt, or kill each other for fun. In a way, they both have a point.
  • Ironic Nickname: A boy nicknamed Buddah is actually the violent and cruel school bully.
  • It Was with You All Along: Nathaniel's realization that the items they've collected are merely symbols of the healing. The real power of The Chain lies in the members themselves.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Lallie.
  • I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure: The reason the school patrol kids from the Gathering murder the Tod. Mr Karle warns Nathaniel of this practically word for word later in the book.
    Mr Karle: I would not think of it Nathaniel. There would be a price to pay, and as before it would not be you who paid it, but one of your friends.
    • This is what happens if the vessel of Light (Lallie), and presumably Darkness (Mr Karle) act in any way to seriously affect the outcome of anything in "the battle". This is possibly an explanation for why the Chain are never seriously beaten up by the Gathering, even though Mr Karle is heavily suspicious of who some of them might be: the one time Nathaniel is actually hurt by the Gathering, it was due to his refusal to follow their rules, rather than that he had been identified. Once Lallie has played her role she is not permitted to give specific information or assistance. When she breaks that rule by using the Tod to save Nathaniel, she and the Tod are the ones punished.
  • Kick the Dog: Done in the most dramatic way possible.
  • Magnetic Plot Device: All of Cheshunt. The darkness in the town draws people to it. They are drawn either by their worst qualities or their best qualities. Lallie reveals that animals are called too, though they rarely answer it.
  • Meaningful Echo: When Lallie tells the group to join hands at the first forging of their symbols, Danny jokingly asks "Does this mean we're engaged?" Echoed in the final chapter.
    Nathaniel: Seth, you're one of us. You're part of the chain forever, Lallie said. No matter what. Till death do us part.
  • Meaningful Name: These are all over the place.
    • Mr Karle is called The Kraken by the protagonists. A Kraken is a mythical beast known for pretending to be an island, something completely harmless and even beneficial for years on end, before rising up to devour all those who settle on it. The name 'Karle' ironically, means "Free Man".
    • Nissa's name means "to test" in Hebrew.
    • The surname Delaney can in some contexts mean "defiance".
    • Danny's surname, Odin, is also the name of the leader of the Norse gods.
    • Indian's real name is Frank, which is obviously another word for sincerity or honesty, and can also mean "free".
    • Seth is the name of the Egyptian god who murdered Osiris.
    • The name Lallie Means "To chatter, or babble".
  • Mysterious Waif: Lallie.
  • Narrator All Along: The end of the book reveals that the story was written by Nathaniel in order to make sure that what happened with the chain was never forgotten, because the healing only works for as long as it's remembered; as long as it's remembered Cheshunt will be protected.
  • Never Split the Party: If the Chain breaks (i.e. if any of its members fails to uphold their duty or is cast out by any of the others) then the town is pretty much doomed. Actually just speaking the words "You are no longer of the chain" to someone is enough to break it.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Subverted with the original chain, who allowed Zeb to go down for a crime he didn't commit. Fortunately, fifty years later, Nathaniel and the Chain do not make the same mistake.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Unless of course you know how dark and terrible Cheshunt really is.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Half of the tension and fear in the book comes from the fact that the characters (and therefore the reader) are never quite sure the extent of how far someone can be trusted.
  • Oracular Urchin: Lallie
  • The Power of Friendship: The real power behind the Chain. Lallie describes laughter as a weapon against the dark.
  • Raised by Wolves: Nathaniel describes Danny as seeming to be this in their first meeting though they eventually warm up to each other.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Lallie, who seems to be some kind of spirit being who was around the last time they tried to forge The Chain and cleanse Cheshunt.
  • Selective Obliviousness: People in Cheshunt and the surrounding areas, if they're not already under the thrall of the dark, seem to cope with how eerie things are via outright denial.
  • Shout-Out: An In Universe version: Nathaniel and his grandfather were both named after the writer Nathaniel Hawthorn.
  • Slasher Smile: Mister Karle. Nathaniel calls it his "happy murderer smile".
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Towards the idealist end of the scale but not without considering other viewpoints.
  • True Companions: The Chain become this at the end. It can be argued that their becoming this was the whole point, as their functioning as a Nakama was the solution they had been looking for the whole time.
  • Tsundere: Nissa has a side of this, but she's mostly just angry.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Turns out to be the main fear of Nathaniel's mother, whose husband was abusive, and is possibly the lure which dragged her to Cheshunt. After the reader discovers this, her reactions to Nathaniel and her behavior in the story start to make a disturbing kind of sense.