this is a gothic horror novel that has a very classic feel to it. it doesn’t try to transcend the genre or break any metafictional ground but it does deliver a solid, if familiar, smalltown thriller.
the premise is one we have seen before: young family tries to escape their problems by moving from big city to quaint small town only to discover that they have unwittingly barged into a very close-knit community with shared history and unspeakable seeecrets and this move has most assuredly not been an escape from anything.
the details around this skeleton: ben and caroline tierney are a manhattan couple with troubles. ben is a writer whose second book flopped, and bipolar caroline has been cut loose from her banking job due to the economic downturn. their eight-year-old son charlie is being bullied at school and they have a second son – a baby they call “bub.” with money inherited from his grandmother, ben moves the family upstate to swannhaven, her hometown, where they set out to renovate a massive estate, planning to transform it into an inn. the area is beautiful, surrounded by woods, and the property is quite isolated. brittle caroline spends most of her time trying out new recipes to serve to the prospective guests and fretting about furniture and painting while charlie wanders out exploring the woods, alone but sensing a presence with which he attempts to communicate. ben, meanwhile, sets out to meet the other townsfolk, with their old world charms, from whom he learns a great deal about the history of swannhaven, including stories of his grandmother. but it wouldn’t be much of a horror novel without the sense that they were holding something back – something not revealed to outsiders, even outsiders with an ancestral stake.
secrets will slowly reveal themselves, and the tension will increase as disemboweled and decapitated animals are found on the property, and as caroline becomes more erratic, and charlie more withdrawn. there’s good escalation here, and red herrings and all the things you want from a thriller. the ending is a bit predictable, but that’s not really a dealbreaker for the genre, and this one does hew pretty close to the traditional skeleton.
the book opens with a letter written in 1777 by one of the first settlers of the area. this is the first in a series that will punctuate the novel, and it tells the story of the brutal winter of ’77, when the founding families huddled together in the very estate in which the tierneys now live, freezing and starving as the land was besieged by indian raids and their survival seemed unlikely. these letters become increasingly stricken, and they add both a touch of historical drama and the “natural” horror of man vs. the elements, which is always a nice bonus in thrillers (see Deliverance, where the river is just as dangerous as the hill people or the descent where spelunking is just as dangerous as… whatever those things were.)
not groundbreaking, but a solid debut thriller.