Witch-hunting, traditionally a New England game, drives south to Georgia and cranks up the Lynyrd Skynyrd in S.A. Hunt’s debut horror trilogy, Malus Domestica. The first book, Burn the Dark, hit shelves last month, introducing readers to vlogger Robin Martine and her diverse crew of small-town witch hunters. Robin follows the case quickly back to her old hometown, where the same coven of witches responsible for the death of Robin’s family threatens the new family that’s moved into Robin’s childhood home.
Robin Martine has a mission to complete and lets no one, otherworldly or no, get in her way, even if she has to make up the rules as she goes along. She has a bodacious mohawk, a van full of enough gear to make the Punisher jealous, and a YouTube channel with enough followers to make Spider-Man jealous. The citizens of Blackfield, Georgia (…yeah…) love their superheroes, too, as the enormous Batman and Spider-Man graphics painted on Fish’s Comics by disabled serviceman Kenway attest. It’s Kenway who emerges as a rock for Robin to lean on as she navigates the small town where pizza guy Joel recognizes her, immediately, although the coven of witches next door fortunately don’t. Throw in an abandoned carnival, a group of tweenage sleuths, and a depiction of a small town that acknowledges that, yes, diversity does exist in rural America, and the setting for a rip-roaring horror novels has begun to simmer.
Unfortunately, the pages run out once the train really starts rolling. Heinrich Hammer, the Texas gunslinger who watches blaxploitation films when he isn’t witch-hunting, walks in the door just before the acknowledgements page. Yes, a character that cool comes in the very end, but after the better part of four hundred pages a gunslinger tastes like gummy bears sprinkled onto a cookies ‘n cream banana split. There’s so much cool stuff in this book, that none of it gets a real piece of the action. The action scenes here belong to either Those Kids running from monsters or flashbacks to Robin’s earlier kills, which don’t have a lot of relevance to the Witches-Next-Door plot. The best fight scene of the book happened in the prologue, which provided the most unique part of this book: witch-hunting on YouTube. Instead of trawling the interwebs, though, Robin spends too much time chilling in Kenway’s loft drinking craft beer. All of the fun pop-culture stuff revolves around the sensibility to the Internet promised by Robin’s job as a vlogger, but somehow it never really connects with the horror promised by paranormal slaying.
A sequel looms in this very calendar year, so maybe the pace will pick up next time. Burn the Dark provides plenty of shout-outs, hollers, and tributes to the culture of awesome it rests upon as it promises suspense with every chapter. If you’ve an inclination to turn off your brain, and let the novel do the driving, Robin Martine’s vlogger battle van stands ready. Tor Books provided me with a review copy, for which I am thankful, but it’s on sale now at Amazon or your local bookstore.
Two out of five stars.
Page count: 368
Favorite quote: “Heaven is sublime contentment. Hell is sublime regret.”