Here is my new home, my place to begin clean, a place that is rotten and overheated and covered in filth. I’ve never heard of anybody slaughtering an animal inside their cabin before. It’s almost fitting, in a sense. I’m starting to believe that Hell is everywhere.
—Daughters Unto Devils, Amy Lukavics
As much as I love reading scary stories, it’s actually quite rare for a book to scare me so much that I want to read while peeking from behind my fingers. In reading, it’s usually easy to erect a Scare Barrier—a distance that’s more difficult to create while watching a movie—and so while some books are scarier than others, I’m not usually physically affected by them. No shaking, no shivering, no flinching, no sweating, no nausea.
Not so with Amy Lukavics’ Daughters Unto Devils.
I read it in broad daylight on a sunny afternoon, and it made me shake, made me shiver, made me flinch, made me sweat, made me sick to my stomach.
In other words, Daughters Unto Devils scared my pants off. (Figuratively. In a good way.)
It’s a historical, and while the era is never explicitly set, it feels like the late-19th century. Our heroine is Amanda Verner, the daughter of homesteaders. She’s the oldest of five children, and is secretly expecting—dreading, really—one of her own.
As she lives in a one-room cabin with her family, she won’t be able to keep the secret for long, but she also knows that nothing good will come of telling the truth—at best, she can expect a beating, at worst, being thrown out of the house. When her father decides to relocate the family away from their tiny cabin on the mountain into an abandoned—and much larger—cabin on the prairie, she decides to keep her secret for a little while longer….
Even before we get into the backstory of the Verner family’s new cabin, even before Unexplained Things Begin To Happen, the tension comes from EVERYWHERE. It comes from the setting, yes—a blood-soaked cabin will do that—but it also comes from the more everyday dangers of prairie life (rattlesnakes and coyotes). Even more stress comes from the relationships between the characters—Amanda’s father’s nastiness toward her mother, the rift between Amanda and her closest sister—as well as the constantly screaming baby, from the claustrophobia inherent in sharing a small space with a large group of people, from the stress of trying to keep a secret in that environment. It comes from Amanda’s guilt and shame, from her isolation—within her own family and from other people—and later, from her jealousy and suspicion about her younger sister’s burgeoning romance.
From her very first line—The first time I lay with the post boy was on a Sunday, and I broke three commandments to do it.—Amanda’s voice had me. With every line, with every interaction, with every turn in the plot, I wanted more, more, more. While few readers will be able to relate to the specifics of her situation, the emotions—the isolation, the shame, the guilt, the frustration, the anger, the love—will be familiar to many.
The dialogue can be occasionally jarring, in that characters sometimes use modern-sounding phrasing like “hated your guts.” While those word choices might feel like missteps to some readers, they served more to keep me off-kilter, to make me more uncomfortable, to make the story feel like it could be happening out in the middle of nowhere, even now. Along those same lines, paranormal elements aside, it made me think of Wisconsin Death Trip: it reads like a fleshed-out explanation of one of those real-life horrorshow newspaper clippings, and that makes it all the scarier.
This is Lukavics’ first book, and I am EXTREMELY excited to see what she comes up with next.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.