A return to form for this popular author.

HOME BEFORE DARK

Spectral danger and human evil stalk Sager’s latest stalwart heroine.

When Maggie Holt’s father, Ewan, dies, she’s shocked to discover that she has inherited Baneberry Hall. Ewan made his name as a writer—and ruined her life—by writing a supposedly nonfiction account of the terrors their family endured while living in this grand Victorian mansion with a dark history. Determined to find out the truth behind her father’s sensational bestseller, Maggie returns to Baneberry Hall. Horror aficionados will feel quite cozy as they settle into this narrative, and Sager’s fans will recognize a familiar formula. As he has in his previous three novels, the author makes contemporary fiction out of time-honored tropes. Final Girls (2017) remains his most fresh and inventive novel, but his latest is significantly more satisfying than the two novels that followed. Interspersing Maggie’s story with chapters from her father’s book, Sager delivers something like a cross between The Haunting of Hill House and The Amityville Horror with a tough female protagonist. Ewan and Maggie both behave with the dogged idiocy common among people who buy haunted houses, but doubt about the veracity of Ewan’s book and Maggie’s desperate need to understand her own past make them both compelling characters. The ghosts and poltergeist activity Sager conjures are truly chilling, and he does a masterful job of keeping readers guessing until the very end. As was the case with past novels, though—especially The Last Time I Lied (2018)—Sager sets his story in the present while he seems to be writing about the past. For example, when the Holt family moved into Baneberry Hall in 1995 or thereabouts, Ewan—a professional journalist—worked on a typewriter. When Maggie wants to learn more about the history of Baneberry Hall, she drives to the town library instead of going online. Sager is already asking readers to suspend disbelief, and he makes that more difficult because it’s such a jolt when a character pulls out an iPhone or mentions eBay. This is, however, a minor complaint about what is a generally entertaining work of psychological suspense.

A return to form for this popular author.

Pub Date: June 30, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4517-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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A bloody and grotesque but ultimately entertaining and inspiring take on horror movies, trauma, and self-determination.

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THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP

Serial killer survivors are forced to cooperate when they’re dragged screaming back into jeopardy.

You have to give it to Hendrix, author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (2020), for tapping into his deep knowledge of horror films and fiction to find a new angle on the tropes of terror with every outing. In the same way Edgar Cantero lampooned Scooby Doo in Meddling Kids (2017), this scary unraveling aims straight for the sheer terrors the best slasher films create. Here, Hendrix has zeroed in on the so-called “final girl,” the sole survivor of a horrific massacre—you’re already thinking of Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween movies or Sigourney Weaver in Alien. This book is even more skin-crawling, as deeply paranoid Lynnette Tarkington (impaled on an antler trophy during her first unfortunate encounter years ago) reluctantly participates in group therapy sessions with Dr. Carol Elliot along with fellow survivors Marilyn Torres, who has buried her emotions in wealth; Dani Shipman, who might have killed the wrong person; Julia Campbell, whose encounter left her in a wheelchair; and Heather DeLuca, who is succumbing to addiction. Hendrix can be tongue-in-cheek (see Horrorstör, 2014) but is deadly serious here while still warping the conventions of the genre, including the fact that some of the survivors have participated in graphic horror flicks depicting their very real traumas. The book is creepy enough on its face, but Hendrix’s use of expedient narrative tools, including a laconic cowboy lawman, an overly eager journalist, and a host of archetypal serial killers, heightens the unease. After one member of this vigilant sisterhood is murdered and a series of oddly prescient attacks threaten the rest, Lynnette becomes increasingly suspicious that the attacks are originating way too close to their inner circle. “Does this ever end?” Lynnette asks. “Will there always be someone out there turning little boys into monsters? Will we always be final girls? Will there always be monsters killing us? How do we stop the snake from eating its own tail?”

A bloody and grotesque but ultimately entertaining and inspiring take on horror movies, trauma, and self-determination.

Pub Date: July 13, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-20123-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2021

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Eerie atmosphere isn’t enough to overcome an unsatisfying plot and sometimes-exasperating protagonist.

THE MAIDENS

A blend of psychological mystery and gothic thriller puts a psychotherapist in pursuit of a serial killer on the campus of Cambridge University.

The author’s second novel features a psychotherapist as its main character, as did his 2019 debut, The Silent Patient (whose main character makes an appearance here). This book’s protagonist is Mariana, who has a busy practice in London specializing in group therapy. At 36, she’s a widow, reeling from the drowning a year before of her beloved husband, Sebastian. She’s galvanized out of her fog by a call from her niece, Zoe, who was raised by Mariana and Sebastian after her parents died. Zoe is now studying at Cambridge, where Mariana and Sebastian met and courted. Zoe has terrible news: Her close friend Tara has been murdered, savagely stabbed and dumped in a wood. Mariana heads for Cambridge and, when the police arrest someone she thinks is innocent, starts her own investigation. She zeroes in on Edward Fosca, a handsome, charismatic classics professor who has a cultlike following of beautiful female students (which included Tara) called the Maidens, a reference to the cult of Eleusis in ancient Greece, whose followers worshipped Demeter and Persephone. Suspicious characters seem to be around every ivy-covered corner of the campus, though—an audacious young man Mariana meets on the train, one of her patients who has turned stalker, a porter at one of the college’s venerable houses, even the surly police inspector. The book gets off to a slow start, front-loaded with backstories and a Cambridge travelogue, but then picks up the pace and piles up the bodies. With its ambience of ritualistic murders, ancient myths, and the venerable college, the story is a gothic thriller despite its contemporary setting. That makes Mariana tough to get on board with—she behaves less like a modern professional woman than a 19th-century gothic heroine, a clueless woman who can be counted on in any situation to make the worst possible choice. And the book’s ending, while surprising, also feels unearned, like a bolt from the blue hurled by some demigod.

Eerie atmosphere isn’t enough to overcome an unsatisfying plot and sometimes-exasperating protagonist.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-30445-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Celadon Books

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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