In Ayers’ debut horror novel, six strangers on a spiritual journey turn on one another while facing a terrifying menace in the woods.
A handful of people meet in Pennsylvania to go on a trip organized by a company called Mystic Tours. The clients include brokerage CEO Ken Berman and personal trainer Gabriella “Gaby” Moreno as well as Beverly Sutton, Coop, Lamar, and the decidedly unsociable Wade. John Lightfoot, a Shawnee member of the Chalakatha tribe, is the group’s guide on what’s billed as a weeklong “quest for a new you.” He drives them all to a remote campsite in the wilderness, and that evening, each experiences a vision during a purification ceremony in the sweat-lodge wigwam that also acts as their sleeping quarters. By morning, however, John has mysteriously vanished, along with his van. Everyone is understandably shaken by this turn of events, and Wade exacerbates their unease with his solo hunting excursions and violent tendencies. But nighttime proves to be even worse, as a strange, ominous black mass stalks the forest, and only light appears to keep it at bay. The group struggles to find a way out of the woods and a method of communicating with the outside world. But it isn’t long before they descend into a vicious spiral of deception, accusations, and betrayal. Ayers’ characters are a motley bunch who each have very different motivations; Coop, for example, is initially excited to go on what will be his second spiritual retreat, and Ken is solely interested in the survival training’s physical components. Everyone harbors secrets, as well, which range from the tragic to the appalling. These all gradually come to light, which keeps the pace brisk and opens up numerous plot possibilities. Although Wade is unsettling from the beginning, other group members also prove to be volatile or have unexpectedly shady pasts. The black mass, meanwhile, is a persistent threat that Ayers describes in proficient, dreamlike passages: “the fog-like haze of steam rising from the endless swirls of ash decorating the landscape.” Many readers will likely be able to predict the ending, but an earlier plot twist is genuinely surprising.
A sharply written and delightfully unnerving tale.