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The Hollows cover

The Hollows: A Storm is Coming by Daniel Church

(Angry Robot, 2023)

Reviewed by Steven French

The opening pages of this ‘folk horror’ novel are strongly reminiscent of a scene from the BBC tv series Happy Valley: a middle-aged policewoman, carrying the weight of personal tragedy on her shoulders, is looking at a snow-covered body in an isolated valley in the Peak District, just a couple of days away from the winter solstice. For Ellie Cheetham, local constable in the village of Barsall, this is not such an unusual occurrence as people sometimes come to grief in the harsh terrain. However, this is no lost hiker or poorly prepared tourist, this is a local man, one Tony Harper, a member of the clan of miscreants and troublemakers who live on a nearby farm. And bizarrely, he froze to death, knife in hand, with a mysterious symbol drawn in charcoal on the rock behind him.

Unpicking this mystery leads Ellie, first, into a violent confrontation with the Harper family and then to the realisation that forces darker than simple human brutality are at work here. As a heavy snowstorm closes off the village, an outlying pub, a house and then a farm are attacked in succession and their inhabitants carried off—except for a young woman found under the floorboards of the house, severely traumatised. With her Sergeant about as useful as a chocolate teapot, it’s up to Ellie, aided by the local doctor, Milly Emmanuel, to respond and save as many of her friends and neighbours as she can as the whole village comes under siege.

Meanwhile Liz Harper, matriarch, clearly knows more than she lets on but is more than happy to see the local population sacrificed as long as her family remain safe. With the help of Jess, abuse-victim and the one decent member of the Harper clan, together with local vicar Madeleine Lowe, Ellie comes to understand that what they’re desperately trying to fend off are merely the harbingers of something much worse, something whose appearance spells disaster and ruination—and not just for the village.

The bulk of the book, and for me, the most gripping part of the story, is taken up with the attempts of Ellie and her friends to defend Barsall using whatever comes to hand, whether that be tractors or Molotov cocktails. These chapters nicely ramp up the tension as character after character falls by the wayside and Ellie struggles to rally her makeshift troops. Adding to the nightmarish mix are the Harpers, determined to wreak their own form of revenge on those they feel have held them in contempt for so long. And, of course, both the weather and the landscape feature prominently as well, their harsh and unforgiving natures forcefully conveyed.

Then, as the remaining villagers huddle together for a last stand, the narrative focus shifts to the party of plucky souls, led by Ellie, who are determined to enter the hollows of the title and face the Big Bad behind all the carnage. From this point, however, it felt as if the reader was no longer being kept on the edge of their seat, despite the Lovecraftian elements. With Ellie’s Band of Sisters surviving repeated attacks, as well as assorted mishaps, the denouement itself felt a little anticlimactic and after the days and nights of terror, it all seemed to be wrapped up rather too easily.

Having said all that, this is still a real page-turner of a book overall. The writing is robust and effective, the descriptive flourishes do the job when it comes to setting the scene and the characters are compelling. Ellie Cheetham, in particular, is a strong, resourceful and hugely likeable personality who I suspect most readers would like to meet again. Given the ending it seems unlikely there’ll be a sequel but, the above complaints aside, this is a striking debut.

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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