“Blurring the lines between reality and the surreal, Ahlborn gives us a tale with nightmare written all over it.”
Stevie’s best friend is his cousin Jude. Though he’s been going through a rough time, and he isn’t always nice to Stevie, Jude is really the only friend Stevie has. They hang out and play games, and they build a fort in the woods where no one else can bother them. When Jude mysteriously disappears, Stevie is sure his friend ran deep into the woods, further than they’ve ever gone before. Stevie’s heard the stories about the woods, how people think there’s some kind of evil there. Maybe that’s why no one in town keeps any pets. With his family frantic and the police looking for Jude, knowing every second he’s gone is one step closer to certain death, Stevie feels like he’s the only one who really cares about Jude. And then, as suddenly as he disappeared, Jude returns. Everyone is happy, and can rest a little easier, especially knowing that what happened to that other boy just a few years before didn’t happen to Jude. But Stevie senses that something isn’t right, that Jude is … different. As Stevie tries to reconnect to the only friend he’s ever known, he discovers his greatest fears have come true, and there really is something dark and evil in the woods.
The Devil Crept In, the latest by Ania Ahlborn (Seed, Brother, The Bird Eater), is yet another powerful story about the nature of evil, and how far we will go to save the ones we love. Our main character, Stevie, is a troubled boy, stuttering and stammering his way through the hardest years of his life, surrounded by an equally troubled mother stuck in a dead-end relationship with a real jerk of a boyfriend. And even though Jude is Stevie’s cousin and best friend, Jude isn’t exactly that nice to Stevie. We discover Jude has problems of his own, and the rage he feels spills out into his interactions with others, especially Stevie. Ahlborn paints a family picture that most readers will feel familiar with. At first, the secondary characters may seem a bit too cliché, but it doesn’t take long for Ahlborn to make them have lives of their own. Everyone probably knows someone like Terry, Stevie Clark’s mom’s abusive boyfriend, or worse, is actually in a relationship with a jerk just like him. It is knowing people like Terry in real life that allows Ahlborn to make the trope come to life, using the characteristics to her advantage to misdirect your emotions. This collateral slight-of-hand forces you to care about Stevie, even though you find yourself wondering just how reliable a narrator he is.
Stevie sees things in the shadows. Things that move swiftly in the darkness. Things that are watching his every move. Ahlborn masterfully plays with these descriptions, lending the narrative a welcome supernatural slant. By the time Jude returns from the woods and Stevie reunites with his friend, we’re already invested in Stevie’s worldview, so it’s very easy to see that there is something wrong with Jude, we just can’t put our finger on it.
Part II switches gears. With an Ahlborn story, this is usually when things get wild, and here she doesn’t disappoint. We go back in time a little to the story of Rosamund Aleksander. We learn of the hardships she endured trying to make a life with her husband, Ansel. This reprieve is a welcome departure from Stevie’s narrative, and she carefully lays out ‘the other side of the story’. And though Rosie is more of a reliable narrator than Stevie, Ahlborn still manages to slightly lean the story to a supernatural bent. Rosie’s husband dies, then she finds herself pregnant. What follows from there is gut-wrenching and harrowing, as Rosie is forced to contend with an unwanted child, and her natural maternal instincts.
The key factor that’s been mentioned twice here is the semi-supernatural slant of the novel. Ahlborn does her very best to keep it as ambiguous as possible, and it is this haziness that propels the story along. The fact that she only suggests the supernatural is just enough to make the reader wonder, and that’s exactly what she wants to happen. The story barely straddles the fence between the real and surreal, more like climbs up one side of the fence and looks over the top, but it’s enough for her to set up her traps. By now, you’re under her spell, and you’ll have a difficult time putting the book down. When she returns to Stevie’s story, we’ve already got an inkling of what’s really going on with Jude, but it’s just not enough. We must know it all, even though that knowledge is likely to tip us over the edge.
And just when we think we’ve gotten it all figured out, we discover there’s more to what’s going than meets the eye. Ahlborn has lead us deep into the woods where no one dares to go, allowed us to see into the shadows, all the while holding us by the hand. By the time we reach the book’s chilling conclusion, we are thrust into a nightmare beyond our wildest expectations. The story is personal, the stakes are high, and the ending is unpredictable yet completely logical. Closing with a short epilogue, Ahlborn further shows that things aren’t always as they seem to be, that there’s always a lingering question in the back of your mind; was it real, or was it just fantasy.
Readers looking for a disturbing story that examines the nature of evil can do no wrong with The Devil Crept In. Blurring the lines between reality and the surreal, Ahlborn gives us a tale with nightmare written all over it. As she did with her previous novel, Brother, Ahlborn taps into a family life no one would want to live and allows us to step into the shoes of a hurting young boy who faces an evil no one else could see. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, you need to get The Devil Crept In as soon as possible, and make sure you’re off work the next day, because you’ll be up all night reading this one.
Publisher: Gallery Books
Release Date: 7 February 2017
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