A book review by Brandi Guarino
In 1821 Wickstead, Rhode Island, orphan Hester Stokely finds herself as the live-in help in her uncle’s home, never fully treated like one of the family, despite being told that they see her as a daughter. The fire that took the lives of her parents left her with a facial deformity that causes the townsfolk to shun and mock her, and the boy she loves to disregard her. She finds it difficult to find her place in the town.
When a man rides into their village on a horse, sick and unconscious, it falls to Hester to use her skills as a healer to nurse him back to health, while he is kept in her uncle’s barn. After the mysterious man regains consciousness, he is questioned by town elders as to where he came from and why he came to Wickstead. Rather than answer the questions, the stranger flees. Not long behind him, an equally mysterious woman comes to Wickstead looking for the strange man and accuses him of murdering her husband, his brother, and burning his previous town to the ground when a curse.
Before long, illness finds its way to Hester’s family and the village itself. The town, already on alert from the disappearance of the stranger, is thrown into paranoia and suspicion. When people start dying from the mysterious illness, town elders begin to subscribe to occult practices to try to end the curse brought on by the stranger. When the mysterious stranger is captured, Hester is eager to hear his tale and how to end the curse upon Wickstead.
I love historical horror and from the first time I read the description of the book, I had to read it. I have to say, Tim McGregor did a magnificent job with this book. In Hearts Strange and Dreadful, he created a completely immersive world with fully realized characters that felt real. I was easily able to visualize myself in 1820s New England in Wickstead and feel like I was observing the story firsthand. I love the character of Hester, her tenacity and loyalty to those she loves and wants to protect. I felt her frustration when the town elders and her aunt and uncle discounted her when she was trying to convey what was occurring in the town. Even the secondary characters of her Uncle Pardon, Aunt Katherine, her cousins, as well as Will and Henry are so well written that they all feel like real people.
The story is slow-building, steeping you in every sight and smell of Wickstead, from the beer hall to the butchering of sheep. While it may seem like the story is slow at times, stick with it. You will be invested, and parts of this story will shock you.
Without giving anything away, I want to talk about the ending of the story. I felt like the story was moving along to its logical conclusion, but I was surprised by the left turn it took. I kept checking the page numbers left on my kindle, wondering if there would be another twist in Hester’s story. It did not end how I expected (and hoped) it would end, and I think that made the story even better.
This is my third story that I have covered for Off Limits Press since I began reviewing late last year, and I have to say the stories keep getting better and better. The press is grabbing some real talent and putting out amazing stories and I look forward to seeing what else they are planning for us.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Off Limits Press for providing me an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.