In 2016, Orenda Books published Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories, a mystery shot through with elements of horror. It was one of the first novels to use the conceit of a true crime podcast to inform its structure: the story is told through episode transcripts, with the show’s host, Scott King, acting as narrator.
I’ll admit, at first I found the concept gimmicky, though I had to concede that Wesolowski’s storytelling was addictive. Since then, however, Six Stories has developed into one of the richest, most satisfying series I’ve ever encountered, and the latest book, Deity, is perhaps the most gripping and thought-provoking yet.
Reading the latest Six Stories novel has become an annual tradition, one best enjoyed on a long, cold night – for, miraculously, Wesolowski has managed to produce one of these intricate, multilayered thrillers every winter for five years in a row. The original novel was followed by Hydra (2017), Changeling (2018), Beast (2019), and now Deity. Dedicated fans of the series – myself among them – await each book as eagerly as… well, as listeners might anticipate a new instalment of a favourite podcast, I suppose.
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Each book in the series is structured similarly. Scott King, himself an elusive figure, investigates a cold case – he describes what he does as “raking over old graves”. These cases always involve something inexplicable which seems to point to the possibility of supernatural influence. As the title suggests, King’s series aims to uncover the truth by examining six perspectives, often from people with strong differing opinions on the case, or those whose insight was initially overlooked.
The Six Stories books have always dealt with difficult themes. Both Six Stories and Hydra explore the tragic ramifications of bullying and the dangers of ostracising a “misfit” on the basis of superficial differences. The backdrop often involves a deprived community – Hydra is set in a fading former mining town, Beast in a downtrodden seaside resort ravaged by government cuts – and several main characters grow up within abusive families. Even seemingly minor subplots contain astute pieces of social commentary: an interviewee in Beast dissecting the difference between working-class and middle-class use of the term “chav”; in Hydra, a focus on the role music can play in providing comfort to the troubled or lonely. While the blend of mystery and horror makes Wesolowski’s books compelling, these details give them depth.
It was with the publication of Changeling, however, that the brilliance of Wesolowski’s project really became apparent. It’s effective as a horror novel, with some incredibly creepy moments. It’s also a well-researched and sensitively told – and more than that, important – story about people and relationships. In an astoundingly clever piece of storytelling which delves into themes of manipulation and coercive control, the narrative itself mirrors the devious behaviour of the villain. When the truth is revealed, the reader – inevitably wrongfooted – is forced to confront their own understanding of the characters’ accounts. As if that wasn’t enough, Changeling also brings Scott King to the fore, integrating the series’ narrator into the plot ingeniously.
Deity, too, tackles a thorny topic. The plot centres on the life and death of an enigmatic singer, Zach Crystal. In life he was a superstar, but since his death his image has been tarnished by rumours of inappropriate conduct with young fans. It’s these rumours that King decides to investigate, along with the strange circumstances of Crystal’s death in a house fire. As he does so, another tale emerges: one of a huge animal with glowing red eyes and a bare skull for a face, a portent of doom glimpsed by many of the people involved in the story. This is the Frithghast – a local legend specific to Colliecrith, the forest where Crystal built his near-inaccessible mansion.
It’s a potentially tricky combination of subjects. The idea of a high-profile abuser has become all too familiar in recent years, and Crystal is clearly reminiscent of several real-life figures. Juxtaposing such a character with a creepy supernatural element could easily feel uncomfortably flippant. In fact, it’s a perfect demonstration of the kind of thing Wesolowski does so well in these books. Deity is engrossing and intensely readable – a book you’ll want to binge – but, like Changeling, it will prompt you to consider who you believe and why. Which details are likely to steer you towards sympathy or revulsion? How far do we need to consider the role of abuse in shaping an abuser, and can we separate the art from the artist? The narrative doesn’t shy away from big questions around power, idolatry and celebrity.
Any of the Six Stories novels can be read on two levels. Firstly as an enjoyable and eerie thriller; secondly as a complex investigation which, rather than solving a crime, digs into the very essence of what makes a person who they are, as well as how others understand them. These are books to make you challenge your own assumptions, even as they send a chill down your spine. For existing fans, Deity is a superb addition to the series. And for those who are yet to have the pleasure: welcome to your new obsession.