Read a NetGalley eARC
Content warning: kidnapping, gore, child death, alcoholism, domestic violence, partner abuse, fatphobia (challenged), anxiety, racism
Liz Rocher returns to her predominantly white town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania to attend her best friend’s wedding. She thought the worst she would have to deal with are micro-aggressions and passive-aggressive reunions with people she hasn’t seen, in some cases, since high school. But when the couple’s daughter, Caroline, goes missing in the world, what unfolds is a race against time and a horrific history of Black girls going missing in the woods every summer for years.
It’s a little bit The Ritual meets Hereditary on a community level, and a lot bit about a divided past that haunts not only the town as a whole but also the characters driving the story.
Liz is going on the unofficial list of my favorite horror protagonists. She’s resourceful and determined. She’s gone through so much but it hasn’t hardened her. The way her struggles with mental health are depicted, especially in the context of being one of the only Black girls in school and having a difficult parent, are so compelling. The relationship with her mother—fraught with perfectionism and cultural and generational gaps—really resonated with me. The love is tough and not simple in the slightest. There’s also the complication of having recently been broken up with while going to celebrate a relationship at a wedding. The emotions are fraught and thorny, though there are moments of tenderness, especially between Liz and Caroline.
I can’t talk specifically about the horror without ruining surprises, but the fears are very real. A Black girl goes missing, our main character becomes a suspect, the police aren’t doing all they can to find the child, and someone starts sending Liz threats the closer she gets to the truth. That being said, the woods around Johnstown are terrifying. The atmosphere is impeccable and the use of onomatopoeia and attention to what’s on the periphery had me tense. Listening to the Hereditary soundtrack while reading probably did not make me feel more relaxed.
It’s a book about emptiness, lack, and desire and how that can lead to destruction, either of self or others. Liz has a void in her that’s dealt with via running away to New York City and alcoholism. There are the gaps left behind each missing and murdered girl. But the book also addresses gaps in the form of differences. Adams deftly handles not only the racial divide in Johnstown but also the class divide. There are layers in each of the scenes where Liz talks to the mothers of the other missing girls. The focus, however, never lets off who and what she is, despite her overall perception of who she isn’t. There’s a self-awareness that not only permeates her characterization, but also addresses Johnstown the town as a character with a fraught backstory.
Overall, if you want to be terrified of the woods while feeling really hard for a community, this is not one to miss.