Title: Something Red
Author: Douglas Nicholas
Date Started: October 8, 2014 Date Finished: October 26, 2014
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★
Every book has a story: I like to try to read one scary novel a year. I’m a terrible sissy, but I love a good horror novel, so I have to limit my exposure with careful choosing. Honestly, in my limited experience, I’ve never read one horror novel I didn’t like. Dracula, The Woman in Black, and The Haunting of Hill House are books I constantly praise and recommend. Last year there was an article in The Huffington Post that had a list of new horror novels, and among them was Something Red. I held onto that title in my brain library and finally bought it early in the new year (before my brain library could fail me), just to hold onto it until October.
Hob began to feel an unease of spirit, an oppression. The sensation grew swiftly till his bodily woes shrank beside it. He looked left at the slowly passing forest, rightward across the ripping, smoking haunches to the trackside brush and more trees, climbing away to the west. He felt breathless and ill. He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.
If combining or defying genres is truly all the rage, then Something Red is one of the most fashionable reads around. Part gothic horror, part historical, part coming-of-age, part fantasy, it weaves a single story from all of these threads, an uncommon tapestry of a tale. A group of travellers are venturing through the woods in a harsh winter in 13th century England, seeking sanctuary from the cold. Their leader is Molly, an Irish exile and wisewoman, trained in healing and magic. There is also her granddaughter, Nemain; Jack Brown, a former Crusader, whose exploits in the Holy Land left him silent and scarred; and Hob, an orphan boy chosen by Molly some time ago as an addition to her troupe.
They finally find sanctuary at a monastery hidden high in the mountains, where they meet several other groups of pilgrims and travellers taking shelter from the storm. All have similar tales of an eerie feeling on the road, the sense of being followed, of being hunted. After a monk is savagely killed, they all face the trepidation of returning to the road on their separate journeys and some groups decide to travel together. Molly’s troupe travels alone to their second checkpoint, a fortified inn. But bloodshed finds them again, and the farther they travel, the more violence they find.
Nicholas’ history as a poet is clearly on display even in this horror novel, rather the most unlikely of places. Though there are long periods of silence between the characters, the woods and the mountains constantly take on sublime lives of their own, sometimes protective, sometimes dangerous. The 13th century is early for what we call “gothic,” but Nicholas frequently uses the hallmarks of Victorian ghost stories to tell this monstrous story. Hidden monasteries, foreign travellers, a handsome ruler who may or may not be trusted. And what gothic horror novel would be complete without a parallel subplot of sexual awakening?
Something Red celebrates all the best qualities of horror, history, fantasy, and romance… if you can call torn-apart bodies and monster fights in a castle a celebration (which I certainly do). And for all the jumps and supernatural scares it provides, its less bloody subplot is no less potent. What it means to grow up, what it means to be overwhelmed by those first romantic urges, and is that really any less powerful than what it means to change form and howl at the moon?