The Blurb On The Back:
When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?
Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more – Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants … until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.
Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors – because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Melissa (known as “Mouse”) works as a freelance editor in Pittsburgh where she lives with her rescue coonhound, Bongo. One day, her dad calls to tell her that her grandmother (a spiteful, bigoted woman who seemed to live to be cruel to others) has finally died at the age of 101 and he’d like her to go and clear out her grandmother’s house to see if it’s in any condition to sell. Coming out of a relationship breakup and knowing that her dad wouldn’t ask unless he really needed her, Mouse agrees and is soon on her way to Pondsboro, North Carolina in her pick up truck with Bongo by her side.
The house is in the woods 30 minutes outside the town and Mouse discovers that her grandmother was a hoarder who jam-packed it with junk. Rolling up her sleeves, she gets to work on clearing it out, but while emptying her step-grandfather’s bedroom, she discovers his journal, which talks of strange white people and creatures in the woods. Knowing that her step-grandfather probably had dementia, she dismisses it as an old man’s ramblings and carries on with her work, helped by her neighbours – 50-something Foxy, potter Skip and handyman Tomas – who live in a house down the road that used to be a hippy commune.
Increasingly though, she finds herself going back to the journal to try and work out what her step-grandfather was talking about, his words burying herself into her brain like some dreadful ear worm and Bongo keeps waking her up at night, barking at something out in the darkness. Added to this, she finds things in the woods that just seem terribly wrong, including a weird, white rock on her grandmother’s land and horrible sculptures left suspended in the woods. Then one night, Bongo wakes her up again but this time, she can see what he’s spotted in the woods …
This standalone horror novel from T Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) is a slow burn that steadily racks up tension and mystery over what is out in the woods. Mouse’s great conversational narration, which editorialises what’s happening and her attempts to rationalise it, enhances the creepiness but the final quarter is quite rushed and anti-climactical and I wanted more Foxy who is a great sidekick with a smart mouth and a pragmatic attitude.
I’m a fan of Vernon/Kingfisher’s books generally and have read some of her darker stuff so was excited to see what she did with an out-and-out horror. This book is inspired by ‘The White People’ by Arthur Machen and Kingfisher pays direct homage by incorporating a recreation of it as the journal written by her step-grandfather, Cotgrave. This could have been a very clunky way of handling the backstory but Mouse’s great first person voice and her way of editorialising what she’s writing keeps it entertaining and addresses reader’s questions as to why she’s reacting (or not reacting) to what she’s reading as a warning to run.
The book is slow to get going with Kingfisher taking perhaps too much care to establish the (relative) normalcy of Mouse’s situation as she struggles to get to grips with her grandmother’s hoarding. I did like all the details that you get on her family, from the vindictive nastiness of her grandmother to the unspoken bond between her and her father and the pity she feels for the put-upon Cotgrave. Kingfisher also takes care to establish the love between Mouse and Bongo and I thoroughly enjoyed their scenes as Bongo has a real personality, which adds to a couple of key scenes and makes him more than a plot point.
I could have done with more scenes between Mouse, Foxy, Skip and Tomas – in part because they clearly know that something’s wrong in the woods and it would have been good to have some more background but also it would have formed more of a contrast between them and the people in Pondsboro who wouldn’t be so quick to believe in what’s happening. I especially wanted more Foxy, who is clearly a broad who has lived a live and I loved her pragmatism and seen-almost-everything approach to even the craziest stuff.
Because of the slow pace, the horror here is a creeping sort (which I actually prefer over constant jump scares) and I can’t deny that there is an increasing sense of dread – not least because you’re really left wondering what exactly is out there in the woods. You get a sense of what it might be through Cotgrave’s journal but you don’t really get a sense of how that ties in with the weird white rock in the house’s grounds or the eviscerated deer in the woods with its surreal alterations and even when Mouse and Bongo take a path that leads them somewhere they can’t possibly be and discover even more horrifying white rocks, it’s difficult to see how it all slots together.
I think this is partly why I was so disappointed in the final quarter of the book, partly because I didn’t really buy into Mouse’s reasons for wanting to go down the mysterious path again (mainly because the idea of wanting to see who had sent the note wasn’t convincing given what she had been through already) but also because once you meet some of the white people, it’s just not really developed. There are no real answers as to what is going on with Uriah or Anna or the poppets although a lot is suggested and it’s sign-posted far too blatantly that Anna is not up to any good so there’s no tension to one of the developments. I just felt that it all needed more time to be set up and breathe and it’s that rare example of a book that could have been another 75 pages long and been better.
For all my criticism though, the horror elements are well done. The scene where Mouse comes across the eviscerated deer is genuinely chilling, as are the scenes where the poppet menaces Mouse’s house and where she and Foxy are essentially held hostage by the poppets in the final quarter. The descriptions of the poppets are a mix of gruesome and mundane and I admired how Kingfisher makes sound a part of that horror with the tap tap tap of bone again the window of Mouse’s bedroom. But Kingfisher also gives the poppets a sense of sadness and tragedy, especially at the end which is surprisingly tender and moving.
Ultimately, the book does have a lot going for it and I would always check out Kingfisher/Vernon’s work but the final quarter doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the build up and as such, the horror doesn’t linger as it should.
Thanks to Titan Books for the review copy of this book.