Book Review: The Best of Both Worlds by S.P. Miskowski

“The power of great storytelling lies in the author’s ability to create a world as real as our own and fill it with such compelling and engaging characters so that we can’t resist bearing witness to the horror as it unfolds. It is a power that Miskowski has in abundance.”

 

The Best of Both Worlds by S.P. Miskowski - coverS.P. Miskowski has been mesmerising readers with tales about her fictional town of Skillute, Washington since the publication of her Shirley Jackson Award-nominated debut novel Knock Knock (Omnium Gatherum Media, 2011). Since then, we have been fortunate enough to read more about this sinister little town in three subsequent novellas, and her most recent novel, Bram Stoker Award-nominated The Worst is Yet to Come (Trepidatio Publishing, 2019). Now, Miskowski is releasing a novella that intertwines with the latest novel, while telling a brand-new story.

Pigeon and her brother, Roland, live alone in the house once owned by their late father. It is quite apart from any other homes in Skillute, which is most fortunate as we learn throughout the book. Pigeon’s mother, Sophie, was born a Dodd, and those who have read the other Skillute books will recognise that name. Dodd women have long been known to practice witchcraft, a fact not lost on Pigeon as she strives to unlock her own abilities, something that is proving difficult. For this reason, and knowing as all Skillute-natives did, that the answer to the town’s mystical lore lay in the ground beneath their feet, Pigeon refuses to leave the town. Even when the abuse she and her brother faced at the hands of a brutal father forced Roland to leave.

But he couldn’t travel far enough away to escape the nagging voice of his sister in his head, confirming the strength of the bond they shared. This is something that is established early, and Miskowski makes it seem effortless. Through the dialogue between them and the inner dialogue of Roland, just a few paragraphs pass and we can feel the love between the two. It is the love of survivors. The love of two siblings who have faced abuse, and fought back. In doing so, Roland’s dark secret, known only by himself and his sister, takes an even more sinister turn and becomes something he refers to as his “craving”. We aren’t immediately privy to what that is—although it is hinted at in a disturbing scene at the beginning of the story, one which is actually reminiscent of a subplot in The Worst is Yet to Come—but Miskowski does an excellent job of allowing the revelation to unravel naturally.

This craving leads Roland to become fixated on two young girls who attend the high school where he works as a janitor, and his sister as a cook in the kitchen. Thus begins the entanglement with the previous novel, as Pigeon and Roland’s storyline becomes increasingly intertwined with that of Briar Kenny and Tasha Davis. He has long been warned by his sister to notice the inconsistencies in the pattern of life. He looks for signs everywhere; signs that show when a situation is not right, or that there is something unusual about a person. He senses something unusual about the two girls and so begins to pay them more than the usual amount of attention.

To say much more about the story would possibly lead to spoiling not only this novella, but also the preceding novel. Miskowski has indicated on social media and in interviews that this story is best enjoyed as a “companion piece” to the novel. Indeed, it was originally intended as a sub-plot of that book, but was deemed to be pulling attention away from the main story of Tasha and Briar and the darkness that ensnares them. Although this novella could possibly be read and enjoyed alone, there are certain elements introduced toward the end that directly reference the outcome of the novel and, in our opinion, to get the most satisfaction out of the story, we agree with the author. In reading both books, we can see how the novella further develops the story of Skillute and the darkness that permeates the town from beneath, without detracting from the novel. There are subtle connections throughout (the cottonwood fibres, the fate of Tyler Blanchard, the appearance—and disappearance—of two sinister little children) which, while insignificant in the grand scheme of this story, does enhance the reading experience when having read the novel first.

If the town of Skillute had only ever existed within the pages of Knock Knock and Miskowski had never felt the need to explore it further, it would have been real enough to haunt the memories of any reader who visited that one book. But, having continued her examination of the disturbing town and its cursed inhabitants, she has created something akin to King’s Castle Rock. Through the eyes of multiple generations of women, from the town’s founding to the present day, and the relationships they form with each other, she has shown us the worst that human nature has to offer. Seemingly ordinary people guided by a dark presence. We say it with the nicest of intentions, but Miskowski has a real knack of creating the most tenebrous characters. While this novella differs slightly from the previous work, the key components of a Skillute story are still clearly evident. The setting is as tangible as words on a page can get, the descriptions drawing us into the story as effectively as scenes on a screen. We are instantly intimate with the inner thoughts of the main characters through the most effectual and economical use of inner dialogue, yet we still wish to learn more, such is the author’s tremendous capacity for potent characterisation. The power of great storytelling lies in the author’s ability to create a world as real as our own and fill it with such compelling and engaging characters so that we can’t resist bearing witness to the horror as it unfolds. It is a power that Miskowski has in abundance, as is proven by her body of work in general, and this novella in particular. While we may not want to live an entire lifetime in Skillute, Washington, we will happily pay a visit anytime S.P. Miskowski extends the invitation.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Trepidatio Publishing
Paperback: 80 (pps)
Release Date: 1 May 2020

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