Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies

Kudos to the person who's not Stephen King and who writes a horror story set in Maine. What if you grow up in Maine and want to write horror? Aren't you intimidated setting your story in the state King "owns". It must be a bit like what Flannery O'Connor said about being a Southern writer after William Faulkner: "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down." 

On the other hand, if you are from Maine, write stories, and gravitate toward horror, are you supposed to avoid the genre or set your stories somewhere else because Stephen King exists? Of course not. E.M. Roy, from Maine, has done neither, and good thing she hasn't, because her debut novel, Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies, is a poised and excellent example of small-town horror set in that state. Though her characters themselves acknowledge King in the book, her story and preoccupations and style are entirely her own. For a first book, for any book, it has little to no derivativeness. Like all writers, Roy has her literary influences, but already she has been able to incorporate them into her writing in such a way that she has her own distinct voice. And a fresh and compelling voice it is.

"There was never a terror upon this town," the novel begins. "The most trouble folks could get into was limited to speeding tickets and neighborly squabbles that ended with all parties involved getting brunch every day and laughing over drinks." The town mentioned is called Eston, and it's here that Leonora Bates, or  Leo, an eighteen-year-old girl, lives with her aunt and uncle. The first chapter has a heading of "After", and each successive chapter will be labeled "Before" or "After", the event they surround being the disappearance of another girl in Eston, Tate Mulder. Tate lives with her single-parent mother, and though they are in the same grade and have known each other for years, Tate and Leo become very close, in fact, fall in love, over the course of one particular summer. When Tate vanishes, Leo is devastated.

While Tate, who is Black, has long been a popular girl in school -- a top student, attractive, charismatic -- Leo has the reputation of being something of a misfit. Her best friend is her dog. She has had serious trauma in her past, the murder-suicide of her parents when she was a child, and that trauma, we find out, ignited violence in her. She has a way of keeping her distance from people, but when Tate unexpectedly makes overtures of friendship towards her, Leo is receptive. It turns out that Tate had some oddness of her own during childhood -- she once wandered out into the town woods and could not be found for a while -- and as a teenager, she has some decidedly esoteric interests. She spends a lot of time in the town library doing research on books with titles like Unexplained Phenomena. A Beginner's Guide to the Occult. Wicca. Women and New England Folktales, The Truth About Urban Legends, and A Practical Study of Crows: Their Prominence and Symbolism. She also has a pronounced interest in such things as "liminal spaces", areas and spots "at the boundary of what was real and not real, of what was Eston and what was outside, what was unexplainable..."

It's in the woods, over the creepy town catacombs, at a bizarre metal door leading to a place containing something, a force, a history, a power, that Tate and Leo come to confront the unexplainable. We see to what extent Tate's obsession with weird phenomena lies. Tate has led Leo to this uncanny door, and Leo, despite her fears, does not pull back from the adventure. Roy sets a number of vivid and strong horror set pieces at this location, and she is good with mood and tension. She builds suspense well with her before and after structure, gradually revealing the significance of the door and how it is tied to past horrors both Leo and the town would prefer to forget.

Roy writes with great empathy for her characters, and you care quite a bit about Leo and Tate. She writes a horror tale that is also a romance as well as a summer rite of passage story. Is anything more intense than first love in adolescence? And in a small town, so confined in certain ways, where nobody truly has secrets, it can be especially hard to shed personal baggage from the past. As much as you may want to leave that town in order to grow, you may find it difficult to leave if the town doesn't want you to leave. Black holes, as we know, have powerful gravitational pulls.

E. M. Roy evokes her setting fully, with crisp prose. Sentence by sentence, Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies is a pleasure to read. Roy doesn't overwrite. It's obvious that she is a horror fiction lover herself, and in a most impressive first book, she has come up with a vintage New England horror story.

You can get Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies here at Ghoulish Books.

Or here at Amazon.

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