Combining gruesome descriptions of supernatural events with character-driven investigation, Wise demonstrates that, just as the body and mind are both part of human experience, tales of demonic evil need not be either mere titillation or thinly veiled morality.
Alma Harper’s brother disappeared on 14th March 1996. Alma believes it happened in Widowsfield, on the same day the town was mysteriously abandoned, but can only remember fragments. Her mother spent the rest of her life obsessed with the number 314. Her father denies they were there that day. Sixteen years later, Alma is a successful and well-loved music teacher. But when the reporters sent to cover the opening of a new music room turn out to also be investigating Widowsfield, Alma is drawn back into the horrors of her past.
The novel is told in two threads: one following the protagonists in 2012 and one showing brief moments in Widowsfield on 14th March 1996. Balancing Alma’s ongoing struggle for closure and snippets of evidence provided without a wider context, Wise provides the reader with enough extra knowledge to feel fear while still sharing Alma’s struggle to unravel the truth.
The scenes of 14th March 1996, for the most part, focus on gory supernatural horror, whereas the 2012 time line focuses on character with little overt threat. This counterpoint both makes the horror more horrific and avoids the building implausibility that repeated gore risks.
While the evidence does start to fit together in the later section of the book, Wise’s combination of a partially amnesiac protagonist and narrowly framed scenes from the incident might make the first part of the novel frustrating to readers who do not enjoy struggling to uncover each snippet of possibility.
Wise’s characterisation is similarly well-balanced. Drawn to her ex-boyfriend yet remembering how bad for her he could be and worried about her job, Alma’s current happiness rests on more than achieving closure on her past. As well as preventing her from being one-dimensional, this complexity undercuts the possibility of happy ever after, making her inner struggles more than the good-vs-evil of some horror.
The same conflicted motives and hidden qualities are revealed in the remaining cast. Although the flaws of both the reporters and Alma’s friends pale in comparison with the creatures behind Widowsfield, the readers opinion on whether they are villains or troubled heroes is likely to change several times.
While this novel is very clearly the first part of a series, it features a strong main arc which is resolved at the end. Combined with the constant sense of only seeing parts of a greater whole that Wise creates throughout, it is likely that readers who reach the ending will find it further cause to speculate rather than a mere hook for the next book.
Overall I enjoyed this book greatly, although more for the challenge of uncovering more of the truth than the overt gore. I recommend it to readers seeking a mix of visceral horror and mystery.