S.J. Bolton, Minotaur, $25.99.
It’s not often that Robin and I wrestle over a book –
as you might imagine there are more than enough of them in our household. But when the new S. J. Bolton Advance Readers’ Edition arrived the donnybrook was on – and since our daughter had returned from college, there was even a third pair of hands grabbing for the book. It’s not that we’re a belligerent bunch, it’s just that Bolton is good enough to fight over.
S.J. doesn’t write a series, but, like many good writers, she is deeply interested in recurring themes and images. Blood Harvest, her latest, begins with a typical scene in which a landslide in the muddy ground of an isolated English churchyard reveals a few too many corpses.
In many way it’s a typical motif in Bolton’s vision of the neo-Gothic, bracingly visceral, yet symbolic of the refusal of old sins and secrets to remain hidden, no matter how deeply buried. And when they dead return they always seem to want to take the living with them. Bolton excels in her vivid portrayal of normal lives threatened by a looming, unnerving darkness, an evil which comes not so much from the creepy settings but from the hearts of the characters who inhabit them. In Blood Harvest a new family, the Fletchers, have moved into the clannish and tradition bound village of Heptonclough, and immediately find their young children menaced by mysterious and malevolent forces. Arrayed against the dark side is another newcomer, the Vicar, Harry Laycock, representing the traditional religious bulwark against the dark side, assisted by Evi Oliver, practitioner of the more modern technique of psychiatry. Evi is a classic Bolton heroine, sharp and acerbic, physically and mentally wounded, very secretly longing for meaningful human contact yet stubbornly avoiding it. There’s also the ancient defense mechanism of the family which, as the book shows with great power, can be as great a force for horror as for joy.
Another major ingredient in the Bolton recipe is the skillful addition of British folklore and custom. There are plenty of disturbing traditions in Heptonclough and even a ruined church haunted by malevolent forces. Since “The Hound of the Baskervilles” mystery protagonists and readers have been presented with paradoxes that push rationality to the limits and seem to have only supernatural explanations. Like the classic English masters, Bolton expertly toys with our expectations, and just when we think we have things figured out, pulls the rug from under us. The term “Gothic” may seem unappealingly dusty and even corny, but Blood Harvest is
skillfully grounded in the here and now, so full of vivid characterization, precisely sketched settings, evocative prose and skillfully turned plot that it grabs the reader as firmly as any thriller. The resonance of Bolton’s work
lingers far longer however, and her tale will haunt you as effectively as any spirit.