The Search for Joseph Tully (1974) by William H. Hallahan


It’s cold in old New York, a Brooklyn neighbourhood is being torn down and Peter Richardson comes to a sudden realisation that he will be murdered. Cue parties where existential discussion dominates and help is sought from sightseers and other dubious professionals of the psychic trade. Meanwhile, Matthew the Brit is running around looking for genealogical traces of one Joseph Tully and his descendants.

If The Search for Joseph Tully feels prententious, it’s probably because it kind of is. The bent here is firmly towards literary horror, with atmosphere playing a key role. There is a strong sense of urban decay, with buildings coming down all around and people moving out in droves, until only Richardson alone remains in his crumbling fortress. His impending doom seems as certain as that of the buildings facing a wrecking ball. A popular occult novel in its day, the novel keeps its cards very close to the chest until the end, when the seemingy random plotlines suddenly merge.

Until that fine final turn, the novel’s quality rests on the thick-as-peasoup atmosphere and few assorted scares, such as a brutal prologue about medieval torture and a visit from a police detective who later is said to have died in the line of duty a couple of decades ago. And in a short novel such as this, it’s enough. The mystery is easily sustained for its 160 pages. Add 50 pages and the meandering discussions between lifetime subscribers to the New Yorker and a discount M.R. James character digging in church archives would outstay their welcome.

Hallahan, a former copywriter, has a good grip on the prose and a good ear for dialogue. The chapters are short, sharp and to the point. The Search for Joseph Tully is a concise package of 70s literary horror and proves, once again, that less can be more.

**** (4/5)