She Who Returns by Audrey Driscoll

Front cover of She Who Returns by Audrey DriscollDriscoll blends learning and esoterica with complex characters, creating a story that evokes classic tales of occult scholarship without any of the dryness that can creep in.

This novel is the sequel to She Who Comes Forth and describes events in Driscoll’s Herbert West series. Possible spoilers for both ahead.

France Leighton has built a satisfying life reading Egyptology at Miskatonic University and working as a shelver in the library. However, the arrival of two half-brothers she never knew she had not only puts degree and job at risk but also threatens to drag her into her grandfather’s experimentations with reanimation and the occult.

With references to Nephren-Ka and Herbert West that are integrated into the story rather than veneered on, this novel is very much an homage to Lovecraft. The amount of Egyptology that appears and the academic protagonist similarly echo the sense of scholarliness that fills many of Lovecraft’s own works. However, the plot of laying to rest of ghosts, evoking magical servants, and treating with Egyptian gods, while filled with mystery and tension, does not display an underlying gulf of the incomprehensibly alien. Thus, this is not a novel of cosmic dread.

Driscoll’s world-building—both of early Twentieth-Century Egypt and ancient mysteries—is powerful and nuanced, and the plot is skilfully balanced between complexity and convolution. It therefore works well as an engaging occult thriller. Whether the Lovecraftian flavours are an advantage or a distraction will thus depend on each reader’s associations with Lovecraft: to readers who know little to nothing of Lovecraft’s work or who do not unconsciously treat Lovecraft and cosmicism as inextricably linked, it is likely to seem a pleasing tale of the borderlands between the mundane and the supernatural; to readers who expect cosmic dread behind the symbols of Lovecraft, even those who otherwise enjoy more traditional occult thrillers such as Quinn or James, the links might tug in a subtly contrary direction.

The plot grows out of France’s experiences in the previous novel so is definitely a sequel rather than another episode in a returning character’s life (and indeed, as Driscoll states in her afterword, is also the end of the arcs that began in The Friendship of Mortals, volume one of her Herbert West series); however, Driscoll smoothly inserts reprises that offer context to events of this book; thus readers who have not read some or all of the previous five novels are unlikely to feel lost.

Another area in which Driscoll deviates from Lovecraft is in character-focus: unlike Lovecraft’s self-proclaimed disinterest in personal narratives, this novel—as with those before it—is as much about the protagonist’s desires and drives, and how they intersect with the personalities of other characters, as it is about unravelling the truth behind strange events. Given that France is a sympathetic character, this adds a desire to see her ultimately succeed to the reader’s desire to understand the mystery.

In line with Driscoll’s greater focus on characters as real people rather than participants in revelation of metaphysical truths, the supporting cast are also nuanced; thus, while the reader might not wish them to succeed or agree with their actions, it is clear there is a plausible, if flawed, reason for them.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking an occult thriller that balances character-driven action with detailed and interesting setting.


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