“There's a difference between bad and evil, John Bowie once told her, his voice slurred with brandy. Bad is when you ignore the one you love. But evil is when you know exactly what that person wants, what means most to them, and you figure out how to take it away.”
Carol Evers has died many times.
They aren’t true deaths--she simply appears dead to the rest of the world, with her heartbeat slowed to a barely perceptible beat and her breath weak and far apart enough that it won’t fog up a mirror. When Carol succumbs to her “condition”—which she calls going to Howltown—she can hear everything going on in the world around her but is powerless to do anything to save herself. Being in Howltown is terrifying, not only because each time Carol slips into this coma she fears being buried alive, but because the entire time she is under, she feels as though she is falling through a howling wind… and something else is there.
Only four people have ever known of Carol’s condition: her mother, who worked tirelessly to protect her daughter’s secret and prevent the unthinkable from happening. Her best friend, John Bowie, who upon learning of Carol’s secret aimed to help her figure out more about Howltown (and how to get out of it). Her husband, worthless snivelling worm Dwight Evers. And then, there’s James Moxie—outlaw and rider of the trail, and Carol’s first true love, who ran away after learning of Carol’s condition.
When Carol’s best friend John Bowie dies, she knows she must tell someone else the truth about her condition, lest something happens to her husband and she falls into one of her death-like comas. But before she gets the chance to confide in her maid, she slips back into Howltown… and great treachery strikes. Dwight Evers seizes upon the opportunity to claim that his wife is truly dead and to play the part of the grieving widower. Rushing the logistics to get Carol into the ground, Dwight is a bitter man tired of living in his wife’s formidable shadow and hungry for her considerable fortune. He is only slightly terrified that Carol told someone else, someone Dwight doesn’t know, her secret. And he’s right. Because outlaw James Moxie knows Carol, intimately, and when he receives word that she is dead, he rides like the devil to get back to Harrows from Mackatoon to save her from being buried alive—and even meets the devil, and is chased by another, along the way.
Unbury Carol is the new novel from acclaimed horror author Josh Malerman and the long-anticipated follow-up to Bird Box (which I loved), and has an undeniably powerful premise. What would your greatest fear be, if you fell dead all the time? Probably that fear would be of being buried alive, like Carol. Unbury Carol unfolds like a dramatic finale to a spaghetti western—there’s a sour husband and his dastardly dealings, an innocent damsel in distress, her old outlaw flame, and a cast of assorted townspeople and villains (including an arsonist assassin, complete with iconic bad guy appearance). In essence, I love this kind of story—a race against the clock, a motley crew of characters, all punctuated in Malerman’s poetic writing style.
In practice, however, Unbury Carol has a few things going against it. For one, the story is too flimsy to be a full novel; this should have been a powerful short story or novella, at longest. As it reads, this particular novel is artificially inflated with unnecessary backstory and uninteresting asides. Similarly, I kind of hate the fact that Carol is such a nonentity in her own story. For the majority of the book, she is in Howltown falling—she makes a key revelation later in the text, but still relies on the actions of others to save or damn her. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the novel, however, is its caricaturish portrayal of the main villains (who also happen to be stereotyped as fat, balding, and disabled. Can we just not do this, please? Why does the arsonist assassin, bad to the core, also have to be referred to as a “cripple” and his disability played up at multiple times in the story?). There’s also a supernatural element to Unbury Carol with the character of Rot making multiple appearances—again, this is interesting, but probably would have been far more impactful in a briefer setting.
I wanted to like this book, and to be fair, there were parts of it that I truly did enjoy. But ultimately, Unbury Carol is overlong and missing the substance that would make it a memorable read.
In Book Smugglerish, five extremely slow heartbeats out of ten.