Rose Black’s debut novel The Unforgetting starts with Lily Bell waking in an unfamiliar room, hearing the sea outside and smelling burnt toast; her dreams of becoming an actress on the Victorian stage are about to come true – or are they?
Witch Bottle is instantly engaging. After a strange, enigmatic prologue in which the narrator encounters a ghastly cruel giant, somewhere outside our reality, we’re plunged into the minutiae of a milkman’s daily round – like an incantation to normality. The narrator is Daniel, who left his wife and infant daughter some time ago to live alone in a spartan rented house in a remote part of England. He says “I’m just trying to give you a sense of the job here…” and it feels intimate, confessional; Witch Bottle is a tale told to the reader.
Bone Harvest isn’t afraid to start at the beginning. Part one of James Brogden’s latest folk horror novel is entitled “prepare the ground”, and the cultivation metaphor – cycles of growth, reaping, ploughing-in and lying fallow – also dictates the author’s approach to his story.
“And so the first thing my twin sister and I did, when we finally got access to a camera of our own, was fake a ghost photograph.” Maclean opens The Apparition Phase with Abigail and Tim – two precocious and insular siblings trapped in 1970s suburbia, obsessed with all things creepy and unexplained – faking an apparition and showing the resulting picture to a vulnerable schoolmate.
Following the Machen-inspired The Twisted Ones, T. Kingfisher takes on another classic of weird fiction by presenting a hole in the wall of a Curiosity Museum which leads to the “region of singular loneliness and desolation” described in Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 The Willows. It’s an incredibly engaging idea, and the book powers along with a likeable narrator, a well-sketched supporting cast, and the author’s clear delight in genre. If you’ve ever wondered how Blackwood would meld with a pacey plot, a touch of Buffy, another of House of Leaves, another of Annihilation – then this is one for you.
The Night Will Find Us by Matthew Lyons wastes no time in taking us into the woods, and fans of supernaturally active forests – from Adam Nevill’s rural Sweden in The Ritual to the Burkittsville woods of the Blair Witch Project – will find much to enjoy in its deftly-conjured location. But the novel’s bold and satisfying blend of folk and cosmic horror put me in mind of Gemma Amor’s masterful White Pines, and this comparison only grew stronger as the novel continued, demonstrating its deep preoccupation with grief and loss.
The House of a Hundred Whispers is set in Allhallows Hall, a rambling Tudor mansion on the edge of Dartmoor. After the death of its master, Dartmoor Prison’s former governor Herbert Russell, his estranged children gather to inherit the estate. But within hours of arriving in the spooky old house, five-year-old Timmy has vanished without a trace. A sumptuously designed hardcover with a picture of those desolate moors, anyone picking this book up would expect a haunted-house story in the classic mould, and that’s certainly where it starts. However, Masterton’s tale veers off in a series of smartly and sharply executed swerves, and ends up in a very different place – less The Haunting of Hill House, more The Exorcist or 2018’s Here Comes Hell.
Bird Box depicted the outside world becoming a dangerous place, filled with creatures which drive humans mad when perceived. In this direct sequel, the creatures are still very much here; Malorie and her children, Tom and Olympia, live safely amongst other survivors at a school for the blind. But in Malorie’s visceral opening scene, the madness – and the creatures – break in, and they are forced to flee once more. Ten years on, Malorie has raised the teenaged Tom and Olympia to “live by the fold” (the blindfold) and follow the strict rules which have allowed them to survive so far. The children don’t always agree with her – and neither does the rest of the world.
The Only Good Indians deals – with a dream-like sense of inevitability – with the fall-out from a hunting trip gone wrong. Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe are four very different Blackfeet men, born and raised on the reservation, taking their last opportunity to hunt together that season. But the elk are all in the section of forest reserved for the elders, and they transgress, crossing the boundary and shooting wild-eyed with “buck fever” at an enormous herd. In the frenzy, Lewis kills a yellow-eyed and pregnant female elk who seems to refuse to die; he forms a connection to her. The trip costs them dearly – losing their rights to hunt on reservation land – and, ten years on, Lewis struggles with a profound sense of guilt.
A Cosmology of Monsters takes pains to warn its readers up-front that “happy endings” and other narrative conventions don’t apply to real life. The novel swerves and ducks reader expectations throughout – sometimes in ways that dazzle, sometimes in ways that are profoundly frustrating. While the book’s headers are taken from Lovecraft, and his influence hovers over the work (including a beautifully-realised eldritch location, the City), Hamill wants to explore the way horror fiction, haunted houses and monsters intersect with family life. It’s a bold mission and creates a book which I suspect readers will either love or hate.