I am always on the lookout for horror writers who actually write horror stuff. Stephen King has always been on a pedestal for me as the ultimate horror writer, and he rarely disappoints when he writes about horror.
I’ve read quite a few authors who have disappointed me, but of late, I’ve discovered one writer who has impressed me with her ability to tell a good, solid horror story.
Tana French’s The Wych Elm is one such book. I had never heard of her before, till I saw her books being prominently displayed in all the major bookshops in London.
I picked up this book on a hunch. That’s something I’ve absolutely loved about reading a book about which I had no idea at all. I allowed the book to take me to unexpected places- it was almost as if I were discovering treasure stashed deep under the earth.
The Wych Elm is about Toby Hennessy, who in the opening pages, describes himself as someone who is a privileged white male. He has the money, the home, the friends– basically everything that would put him in a prestigious position. Really, what more could a guy as lucky as him want in life? (We get to see his white privilege work it’s best when he’s caught out for fraud at an art gallery).
However, one unfortunate night, his luck is overturned. He is attacked in his apartment by two strangers, and ends up in the hospital with his injuries, leaving him traumatised, both physically and psychologically. He has no idea who would have attacked him. His friends all surround him and give him the moral support he needs.
Toby’s mother suggest that he shifts to The Ivy House, their ancestral family home, to live with his uncle Hugo, who himself is unwell.
One afternoon, when Toby’s friends and cousins are over at the Ivy House, they discover a skull buried beneath the Wych Elm tree. Curiosity gets the better of them and they discover an entire skeleton buried there.
The police and the detectives get involved. An investigation begins where everyone is a suspect. This is where the book really picks up because we get to see Toby as being a very unreliable narrator. Who is Toby? Is he hiding parts of himself from everyone? Does he a have a dark side? Could be be the killer of the body buried beneath the Wych Elm?
The book is a slow burn book. It takes it time with each chapter, in allowing the reader to really feel the moment. It doesn’t want to rush through. It wants us to really sit down and feel what Toby is going through. It becomes deeply psychological at times, and helps us see what makes a person who they are.
There is a lot of fun in trying to figure out who killed the body and why. Everyone, including uncle Hugo, Toby’s friends and cousins, become a suspect. No one is safe. This is where the writer does a brilliant job of taking us inside the mind of Toby- who is never sure of himself at times when he is being interrogated by the detectives. Can his white male privilege help him out this time?
Toby is taken back to his past to his school days. He confides in his cousin and friend. He struggles to find out what exactly happened. When one cousin tells him to forget about the past, that’s when Toby knows that he has to dig deeper and find out the truth. Eventually, we do find out who killed the body and buried them under the tree, which is a surprise.
There is a lot of claustrophobia and tension in these moments as the detectives start to close in on Toby. I could literally feel that same tension of being confined inside a room where all evidence seemingly points at you. The way the writer has written these moments is sheer brilliance!
So this book may not be Stephen King type of horror (no monsters, no supernatural going ons) but it does have a lot of tension and dread that kept me on the edge. There were enough moments where I would internally start panicking at what about’s to happen. The tension was high enough to make me want to get to the next chapter to see what happens. The ending– I was very satisfied. The pay off was beautiful and everything made sense.
The tagline of the book says “what do we hide inside ourselves?” This is an interesting concept– after all, don’t we all have skeletons in our own closets?