I wonder how someone who hasn’t been around the fictional block a few times would read the beginning of this novel. I wonder if someone who hasn’t seen a few horror movies (okay, in my case, mostly commercials for horror movies) and read a few scary books (and who didn’t take in the synopsis of this book) would see the first couple of chapters.
Me? I can apply Mary Richards‘s quote to my relationship with horror: “I’m an experienced woman. I’ve been around… Well, all right, I might not’ve been around, but I’ve been… nearby.” I know enough that when red eyes gleam out of somewhere no one should be, it’s a Bad Thing. I know that when crows congregate, it’s a Bad Thing. I know that when communications are abruptly and inexplicably cut off, and traffic suddenly disappears, it’s a Very Bad Thing…
I often say I don’t like dystopian fiction. In fact, I’ve found I am fascinated by the idea of something like The Stand or “Falling Skies” or “The Walking Dead”, where a small group of people is left when the rest of the world is wiped out, and have to make use of what’s around them to live amongst the ruins. One reason I don’t like the sub-genre, I believe, is that in most books that I’ve seen – like that unicorn novel, Ariel – there is just no explanation for it. Some 90-99% of the planet’s human population (and occasionally other animals, as in King) is dead, planes have dropped from the sky, roads are clogged with cars whose drivers have just died behind the wheel – and there’s no reason. The Stand had a good reason, and a purpose beyond simple survival for those who remain. Ariel? Gosh, dunno, did I mention my unicorn talks?
The Hallowed Ones does not provide a full explanation – it wouldn’t, would it, being (evidently) the beginning of a series, and being told from the tight point of view of an Amish girl of about sixteen. But there is enough to be going on with.
I may have only been “nearby” the horror genre, but I’ve been near enough to recognize some classic tropes when I see them. Some are as above – the crows, the red eyes gleaming, etc. – and there are others in plenty here. This is where I wonder how someone who reads a great deal of horror would see this book. Brimming with cliché?
But I’m thinking (hoping) this might have been fully intentional. This is a novel with a unique point of view: that of a young Amish woman on the verge of adulthood, curious about the world mainly to reinforce her decision to remain out of it, and she doesn’t know the tropes. She does know quite a bit about the Outside – this community does not quite live in a vacuum, but interacts with the English regularly, and lapses in the unbaptized children are often overlooked. Especially as Rumspringa approaches, illicit experimentation has been quietly aided and abetted by nearby store owners – Katie’s favorite comic book is Wonder Woman, for example, and her love of Coca Cola almost gets her killed once things fall apart out there (out here, I mean). There are some references dropped throughout the book that raised my eyebrows a bit, but for the most part I could swallow them. Her internal comment about passive aggressive behavior, though, was one I couldn’t quite get down.
For me, the first half of the book was the strongest. What is going on Out There? Where is everyone? Can they get the missing members of the community back? Was rescuing the stranger a terrible mistake – did she just fulfill the Elders’ worst suspicions and bring in something which will eviscerate the community? I can’t say I enjoyed the tension – that suspense right there is one of the biggest reasons I Don’t Do Horror – but I did appreciate the skill with which it was ratcheted up, and the rest of the book – once some of the answers come out – felt a little flatter. The suspense did not evaporate, but a good deal of it was swapped out for outright gore: this was a good deal bloodier than I expected.
“It was nothing like you see in the movies, these creatures. There’s no seduction. No passionate luring of the victim to a dark side of velvet. This is not just the stinking, rotting underbelly of evil without its makeup. This is exactly what the Undead were in all the old folk stories, the world around. Every culture has a vampire – a creature that drinks the blood of the living. And it’s not a pretty process.”
Katie finds herself in the sort of situation I’ve only seen before in setups for in fantasies: she is part of a warm and loving family which is part of a warm and loving community, and she has done something the general populace would consider a good thing, and act of mercy and kindness – but which would very probably set her so much at odds with the elders of her community that she would be cast out: she has saved a young man who would without doubt have died if left alone. It would not matter that she was right, that Alec is not a danger but should in fact be an asset; it wouldn’t matter that this community did essentially the same thing in sheltering Mrs. Parsall; it wouldn’t matter that if they drive Katie from the community she will be very soon very dead. The rules are the rules, and there is no argument. It’s, again, the sort of thing I would expect to see in a fantasy novel, or something set long ago and far away. But The Hallowed Ones is twenty-first century USA.
The Elders are stolid and stubborn and will not hear what an unbaptized girl or an English woman have to say; they make decisions that anyone who knows anything (like Katie or the reader) knows are nonsensical and dangerous, and will brook no argument. This might, perhaps, be completely realistic, I don’t know; it felt overly stereotyped. The rest of the Amish community is not stereotyped; Katie’s family and several featured players are nicely rounded characters (who make those Elders look just a bit more two-dimensional), and the community as a whole is given a genuine warmth and life through Katie’s eyes. I like Katie. She has a refreshingly unjaded view of the world, and a real love for her home – but she just wants to have her Rumspringa, dammit. For me the only shortcomings to her was that her perceived flaws are more told than shown. She reflects often on how disobedient and willful she is, but – while she does think for herself and take action off her own bat – she reads as a fairly normal smart and strong girl. It is as an Amish girl that she is headstrong, but we never get to know any other Amish girls very well, so it’s hard to judge – again, it’s all as the reader is informed, and through the filter of Katie’s perspective: she may not be so different from the other girls of her community, except that she believes she is more prone to disobedience and free thought.
I probably will read the rest of this series as it comes along. It wasn’t what I expected, which was good; it wasn’t what I hoped for, which wasn’t so good. It wasn’t entirely my cup of tea (again, I’m a wimp), and I’m not sure if it would satisfy a true horror buff – but it was pretty good.