The Darkling by R.B. Chesterton by my friend and colleague Joyce Saricks who had read it and loved it, but wanted my opinion on whether or not it was “horror.”
I was intrigued because I had never heard of the author. Turns out that there was a reason I was unfamiliar with her. Chesterton is the pen name of the award winning mystery writer Carolyn Haines.
The Darkling is told in a flashback by Mimi, who is now a senior citizen but is telling us of the time just after college when she lived with a wealthy family, The Hendersons, and served as a governess/teacher to their three children. The setting is 1974, deep in the Alabama swamps of an old vacation town called Coden. Coden has fallen on hard times, but the Hendersons have moved to Coden from California, bought some of the formerly glamorous vacation properties, and are rehabbing them, investing in a bright future for Coden to reemerge as a vacation destination.
Mimi's tale of her life with the Hendersons begins when they take in a troubled teenager with no recollection of her past named Annie. Once Annie joins the household, things start going badly for the Hendersons and their lives take a tragic turn.
The entire isolated, run down town setting, the outsiders moving in, the troubled girl with no past....this set up makes for great tension and unease. This is the biggest appeal factor of the novel, the anxiety, tension, and dread which it stirs up in the reader. Chesterton is masterful here as she quickly and convincingly sets this stage. The atmosphere begins as oppressive and then it only gets worse from there. For readers who like tension and suspense this novel is pretty close to perfect.
The entire story is told only from Mimi's point of view. As things start to spiral out of control we only have Mimi's side of the story, which leads us to ask, "Is Mimi reliable." Well, while you are reading, Mimi's voice is strong and convincing so I totally and utterly believed her while I was reading, but the second I stopped reading, I came back to my senses and was thinking," I think I have an unreliable narrator here." But then when I dove back into the book again, I was captivated by Mimi and was immediately back to believing her again.
Back to Joyce's initial question now: Is this a horror book? I would say technically it straddles the fence. If forced to classify this book I would call it Southern Gothic meets psychological suspense with a generous helping of horror on the side. There may or may not be a supernatural evil in the bayou and woods stalking the children of the family, but then again the killer may be human. Mimi [and therefore the reader] definitely sees a horrific creature and it mocks her, but is it all in her head? Also, the atmosphere is oppressive and it builds to a frenetic conclusion, just like a horror novel. That's why I am calling it "Horror for the Squeamish" because it has all the traits of horror without obvious gore. And it's not inducing terror as much as dread and unease.
The Darkling is a short, fast read. Things go from uneasy, to troubling, to problematic, to terrifying rather quickly. And the ending is fabulous! Mimi's narrative voice is perfect throughout this book. She holds the reader entranced and we blindly follow her lead through the story, even though we are always wondering if we should trust her or not. In the end, although we never know for sure exactly what happened, Mimi sticks a final twisting knife into us that makes us think we need to question everything we just thought we read. I closed the book and literally said aloud, "Wow." In fact, I almost started the book over again immediately.
The Darkling is going to become my new go-to Horror for the Squeamish pick. It is also a great YA cross-over title, especially for those teens who want a sophisticated "scary" book without the blood, gore and graphic sex you find in most horror today. And now I can’t wait for The Seeker [set in Walden Woods] to come out in March.
Common Limiter Alert: There is intense stalking of and violence against children in this book.
Three Words That Describe This Book: horror for the squeamish, Southern Gothic, unreliable narrator
Readalikes: I will start with the most obvious. As I was reading The Darkling, I kept thinking that it seemed very similar to The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which was one of my favorite reads of 2010. And it wasn't just my imagination as to how similar the two books were because about halfway through the book Chesterton gives what amounts to a "shout out" to The Little Stranger by naming a very minor character (so minor she doesn't even need a name) Sarah Waters. I chuckled. What's even better, Mimi mentions that this woman does not like her multiple times. Is that an apology from Chesterton to Waters for writing such a similar book? It was a fun homage for those who got it.
Two other classic books which The Darkling seems to be mining for inspirations are Henry James' The Turn of the Screw [isolated house, governess who is an unreliable narrator, things falling apart rather quickly under her care] and And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie [creepy poem about people being pick off one by one, isolated house, locked room style murders]. Like The Darkling both of these novels are very scary and creepy without resorting to gore.
If you like the Southern Gothic setting and tone with an intense psychological suspense angle and don't mind some zombies thrown in for good measure, I think Alden Bell's wonderful The Reapers are the Angels would be a perfect suggestion.
Two authors who write atmospheric horror, focusing on female protagonists are Alexandra Sokoloff and Sarah Langan. If you liked The Darkling try The Unseen or Audrey's Door, both deal with haunted houses and have young adult characters.
Two other creepy, psychological suspense books with unreliable narrators that I enjoyed greatly are Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King and The Keep by Jennifer Egan.
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