More chilling than a night in a walk-in freezer and more disturbed than your sleep as a new parent.
This review has been posted on Goodreads and Amazon too - you should always do this to support authors! Lecture over now.
I like murder mysteries. I like the supernatural. I like small town goings on. I like serial killer stories, complete with bizarre corpse arrangements straight out of the Hannibal TV series, and I like seeing the point of view of the serial killers themselves. I like weird pagan-style gods, and I love forests. Oh, and I love genre mash ups. So when faced with a genre mash up that has all of the above packed into it, I was practically salivating all over my Kindle. That’s not a nice image I realise, but it’s nothing compared to some of the macabre, grisly scenes that indie author Farah Ali puts us through in this deliciously dark cracker, part one of a currently ten part series, that I practically ate whole in a couple of sittings.
What of the plot? Deerleap Hollow is a small town surrounded by forest and cloaked in legend; the deer of the forest are sacred and watched over by a forest god who once avenged a murdered tribe, whose spirits reside in the forest. The townsfolk of Deerleap revere the deer – kill one at your peril – and place creepy antlers over their doors but this, as the new out-of-town detective inspector Jack Montague will soon discover, is the least of his worries, because this is a town filled with old unsolved murders that are just as alarming as the spirits in the woods. When girls start to go missing, Jack will team up with a local psychic, Lila, who finds their grotesquely disfigured bodies. But Lila is haunted by her own past and the murder of her family, and Jack will soon realise he has two mysteries on his hands.
That’s not the author’s blurb by the way, that’s mine, and the fact I accidentally started to write a whole blurb by myself shows how much fun I had with this strange but gloriously effective novel which serves as a magnificent opening novel to the supernatural goings on in this deer-obsessed town.
It quickly becomes clear that Ali is not afraid to disgust her reader, or draw them into the macabre, whether it’s the deeply disturbing arrangement of the corpses or the unsettling relationship between the serial killers themselves. Her imagery is macabre, her love of gruesome details laudable, and she also conjures up the more poetic, spiritual images of the forest with admirable prose.
While we spend some time with the detective and his psychic assistant, we spend almost an equal time with the serial killers themselves, sort of like if Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs had been a lot more verbose. It’s a bold narrative risk but it plays off beautifully; in fact, these scenes are far more interesting most of the time than the ones with the detective himself, and are darkly absorbing in a “I want to look away but can’t” vibe. This leads to some truly dark and absolutely gripping scenes that had me virtually speed reading the Kindle pages in some kind of obsessed trance, a haunted reader unable to escape the ghoulish narrative sucking away at my lifeforce.
I should say that the close focus on the serial killers themselves does sometimes mean the protagonists Jack and Lila, and their burgeoning relationship, feels a little lightweight, but I found myself not particularly caring as the scenes with the former were so uproariously chilling and monstrously hypnotic.
Then there are the supernatural elements – the true nature of the forest and the spirits and the god that inhabit it – which are interestingly intertwined with the story. They are not pivotal to the plot; they seem more to be introduced as a taster of what is to come later in the series. But if that sounds like a cop out or lightweight, I didn’t think that at all; I loved the hints at the wider worldbuilding (or in this case, creepy forest building) and they were played either for glorious if brief chills or, in one instance, for strange, eldritch, ethereal tension that should have been utterly ridiculous but somehow worked a treat.
When the second mystery comes into play later in the book – the mystery of the murder of Lila's family, ostensibly by her own father, it’s not the greatest mystery. Unless you’re trying to multitask while driving down a motorway the wrong way, you will probably guess the twist here. But again, what should be a flaw doesn’t matter in the end because the eventual description of the true events is so utterly haunting and relayed in such astonishingly brutal yet compelling prose that it left me completely rattled, shattered and deeply disturbed.
In fact the more I think about it, the more pitch black this book becomes, and I loved every second of it. That’s not to say there isn’t beauty in there – in fact, as the title might suggest, that is kind of the point. But this is not a novel for the fainthearted, and you might come out a lot less settled than you came in.
But then, if you’re anything like me you will want to dive straight back in to the next book and consume the series. So far, I’m hooked. You might want to pray for my soul…