Moving into a new home can be simultaneously exciting and almost unbearably stressful. Moving into a new home that is located in the pages of a horror novel makes the quotidian stresses of packing and unpacking, redecorating, and acclimatizing oneself to a new environment seem like a pleasant afternoon diversion. Rare is it in a novel of terror that the new occupants get through a single night in their adopted surroundings without being harassed by the ghost of the previous owner, who most likely met with a violent end, or mopping up blood that mysteriously seeps down the walls, or hearing strange scratching sounds emanating from the basement or attic. Like camping in the woods or taking any kind of shortcut to one’s destination, moving into a new house is a recipe for disaster in a horror novel.
Neither of the homes the characters occupy in The Book of Accidents and Cunning Folk is haunted in the traditional sense, though both are sites of past trauma. In both these books it is the surrounding areas, and the shadowy folks who inhabit them, that operate as the locus of evil and encroaching dread.
Of the two authors, Wendig is the more grandiose, unspooling a sprawling apocalyptic tale that signals its maximalist intentions right out of the gate, with not one, but two prologues. The first features the execution of a notorious serial killer who is strapped into the electric chair only to vanish as the switch is thrown. In the second prologue, a hunter stumbles across a blood-soaked boy wielding a miner’s pickaxe; no points for guessing the encounter doesn’t end well for the hunter.
Following these brief introductory scenes, Wendig launches his reader into the story proper. The Graves family – father Nate, mother Maddie, and son Oliver – move into Nate’s childhood home, which he has inherited for $1 following the death of his abusive father. They hope that the country home and its environs might be a suitable environment for Oliver, who has been undergoing therapy and appears to reside somewhere on the autism spectrum. Oliver is also an empath who feels the pain of others so intensely he can almost see it manifest itself. His heightened sensitivity makes him easy prey for a pair of school bullies and an eccentric kid named Jake, who claims to have magical powers and introduces Oliver to the eponymous Book of Accidents, a list of casualties and injuries at the nearby decommissioned coal mine.
Wendig is himself a resident of Pennsylvania, so it is little surprise that his depiction of that state’s rural mining country is among the most evocative aspects of his novel. And he has a strong sense of pace, which is a benefit in a book that runs to more than 500 pages; rarely does the prose flag or lose momentum. Exceptions involve passages in which the characters pause to mull the cyclical nature of abuse or the damage violence can do to a person’s development. These moments in which the subtext becomes text stand out more as authorial intrusions than organic elements of the story itself. And perhaps one too many characters is enamoured with the phrase “on the regular.”
As for the horrors themselves, Wendig is adept at building set-pieces, but the novel can at times appear like a bit of a pastiche. The (un)dead serial killer bears a little too much resemblance to Brion James’s Meat Cleaver Max character in The Horror Show and Mitch Pillegi’s Horace Pinker in Wes Craven’s Shocker. And the influence of Stephen King is unavoidable, not just in the presence of the school bullies and the novel’s epic length. Nate meets a neighbour named Jed who takes him on an excursion to the notorious Ramble Rocks boulder field where they navigate a treacherous path over a dangerous outcropping of rocks. The scene in which a character called Jud (the chime in the name is unavoidable) leads Louis Creed over a perilous deadfall to the Native American burial ground in King’s Pet Sematary is never far removed from the reader’s mind during any of this.
By the time the true nature of the novel’s horror – involving ritual sacrifice, demon summoning, and a series of parallel dimensions in which our world appears slightly off, as if viewed through a funhouse mirror – is revealed, the reader will likely be sufficiently invested to pursue the story to the inevitable climactic showdown between good and evil. It’s a testament to Wendig’s skill at character building and scene setting in the novel’s first half that the reader is willing to accompany him and his cast to the end, regardless of how outrageous – or downright silly – things become along the way.
Wendig has an undeniably cinematic sensibility; Adam L.G. Nevill’s tenth novel, Cunning Folk, began its life as a screenplay. Clocking in at a relatively svelte 320 pages, it is more compact than The Book of Accidents and also more visceral.
At the novel’s heart is another seemingly perfect nuclear family: Tom and Fiona, four-year-old Gracey, and Archie, the family puppy. Wanting to move his wife and daughter out of their cramped city flat, Tom buys a country house at auction. The previous owner hanged himself from an electrical wire at the foot of the stairs, but Tom isn’t about to let a little matter like that dissuade him from the apparent rural idyll of a semi-detached property that backs onto a woods in which he imagines his daughter can grow up alongside the wonders of nature.
Of course, this being a folk horror novel, the nature Tom and his clan encounters is anything but nurturing.
But the eeriness of the woods is nothing compared to the couple that occupies the dwelling on the other side of the adjoining hedgerow. Delightfully named Medea and Magi Moot, the next-door neighbours are among the most malevolent and vibrant characters in recent memory. At first, they appear simply sour, glaring at the new arrivals from behind curtains and complaining that Tom has trampled their flowers when he drops by to introduce himself. But before long, Tom and the Moots are engaged in an escalating battle of wills that starts with leaving errant dog faeces on the lawn and soon involves dead foxes nailed to trees, the decapitation of a row of birches with a chainsaw, and strange rituals in the dead of night.
Tom, Fiona, and Gracey are all enticingly drawn. Fiona’s stunned disbelief as her husband first wages war with the Moots, then begins tearing up their new home in an attempt to unearth an evil he is convinced has been buried there, is precisely calibrated, and Tom’s increasing frustration at his inability to convince his wife of the threat from next door is in the great Hitchcockian tradition of the innocent man wrongly accused. Gracey’s childish naiveté, meanwhile, provides a level of ironic distance that underscores the unease Nevill infuses into his story. When Gracey insists on seeing “whiteys” in the woods and Tom witnesses his neighbours engaged in a pagan ritual involving masks made out of boar and rabbit skins, he enlists the help of a magical practitioner named Blackwood, which is where things really go off the rails.
Nevill is a veteran of the horror genre, so it is no surprise that his understanding of how to craft his story for maximum impact and creepiness is acute. If there is a problem with the book, it’s one that has tripped up horror writers at least as far back as Lovecraft: in a story involving the worship of a pagan god, sooner or later the entity must be revealed, and the revelation is never as interesting as the lead up to it. This is also the case in Nevill’s earlier folk horror works The Ritual and No One Gets Out Alive, though here the confrontation with the deity is elliptical and brief, and the novel’s melancholy final pages serve as an effective coda to the pyrotechnics at the climax.