“Henry shows a deep imagination, and an ability to sustain terror, even if that’s mainly of the human variety.”
Christina Henry is a name which will be familiar to many who read dark, fantastical books. For a number of years, she has carved out a career reinventing and reimaging classic works of fantasy. Peter Pan, Red Riding Hood, and Alice in Wonderland are just three works to which she has applied her own, fertile imagination. But recently, she has also penned works which are fully original, cut from completely new cloth. One such novel, The Ghost Tree, was released to acclaim from the likes of Paul Tremblay and Christopher Golden. And now, she returns with her latest, Near the Bone, a dark fable which pits an unlikely heroine against a ferocious monster, and dangers closer to home.
Living a simple existence in a cabin on the mountain, Mattie is a loyal wife. She has to be, for her husband William’s temper can be terrible. Especially if Mattie transgresses in any way. Which it seems she does, frequently, often without realising it. But years with William have taught her how to anticipate most of his mood swings. This all changes when a strange beast appears on the snowy mountainside, a creature that seems more than animal. And following that, three strangers chasing a sighting of the beast, who threaten to turn Mattie’s world upside down.
Straight off the bat, this book has atmosphere. Tons of it. The opening pages describing Mattie foraging in the woods, then finding the mutilated corpse of a fox, are wonderfully evocative. It also helps we are not really given much in the way of setting. Sure, the geography is beautifully, starkly described, but we don’t know exactly when or where the story takes place. It could be the Appalachians in the 1800s, the wilds of Scandinavia centuries before that, or even some future post-apocalyptic world. It’s a clever move, one which puts us on almost as much of a uneven footing as poor Mattie. For, though she is able navigate her hard life with William—snippets of which are delivered as she toils, showing his domineering aspect—she cannot recall much of a life before him. Only vague dreams and even hazier memories.
Instead of teasing out the first few chapters with set-up, Henry decides to showcase her monster early on. No, we don’t see it—we never really do; it exists in shadow and darkness—but we hear it, we see signs of its passing. William then makes his appearance and before Mattie can tell him fully what she’s found, he hits her. Now, we suspect it’s coming, but it’s still a shock. And when he forces her to follow as he hunts for the beast’s lair, it shows how callous he is towards her. Through Mattie’s thoughts and William’s dialogue, we see he only wants her for her ability to bear children. Something she has not yet provided, much to his displeasure.
Though the story could be seen as a typical ‘people hunted by a monster in the woods’ affair, it’s so much more than that. Mattie fears William at least as much as the creature. It, at least, appears only sporadically, randomly, whereas he is with her most of the time. And she has been conditioned so much, mere thoughts of escape send her into paralysis and terror. This, then, is the true darkness at the heart of the book. It is an examination of abuse, of domination, of sustained violence—verbal and physical—doled out on a victim. And it is almost overwhelming at times. Henry manages to make the pages bleed with Mattie’s suffering. It’s palpable, rises up from the words. All empathy is with Mattie, and William is truly a horrific creation, yet never feels like a caricature. He is a true embodiment of the evil humans can, and do, visit upon each other.
But there is hope, even if it’s thin. The arrival of three newcomers sparks a tiny flame in Mattie. Though she wants them to beware William’s wrath, she also thinks—deep down—they might offer some salvation. Not least, because it’s clear they come from a world light-years from what Mattie knows. She exists in a spare, simple, closeted life, albeit with the hardships lack of technology and living with William bring. The newcomers are from the civilised world, finally showing the story takes place in the present. Meeting them kindles memories in her, more and more. Soon, she remembers—though still only vaguely—where she came from. It helps one of the visitors recognises her. It’s a tragic, heart-breaking revelation when we find out what happened to her, what William did.
Yet amidst this affecting, crushing human drama, there is still the monster. It appears at random moments, harrying at one turn, leaving be at others. Its behaviour—much like William’s rages—is unpredictable, chaotic. It could be seen as a metaphor for the darkness of Mattie’s life. Or an allegory for all the random cruelty which exists in the world. It attacks silently and, it must be said, these moments feel of little impact. There is no real build-up, no sense of anticipation. It’s unfortunate, as it could have added even more layers of dread and tension. But really, it’s not that big a detraction; the story is, after all, about the human aspects and in this it delivers. In fact, it could easily have done without the apparent force of nature the monster represents and the story would still be a strong. The character interactions, Mattie’s plight, all are more than enough to sustain the book.
The only other criticism is one which seems to be sadly hindering more and more books these days—the editing. There are a quite a few typos throughout, unnecessary repetition, and the occasional awkward phrase. It’s a shame, because it mars what is otherwise a well-realised piece of dark fiction. It’s not without its minor flaws—pacing, character decisions—but these can be subjective, and it still has more than enough to recommend it. A tighter edit would simply elevate it more.
So, aside from these relatively minor issues, Near the Bone is still a compelling enough read. Henry shows a deep imagination, and an ability to sustain terror, even if that’s mainly of the human variety. And, as an example of atmosphere and setting, it succeeds massively. It’s certainly one that makes a reader want to read more.
Publisher: Titan Books
Paperback: 368 (ps.)
Release Date: 13 April 2021
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