Review by Austrian Spencer

I came to Whispers in the dark by Laurel Hightower, through the Women In Horror Month (WIHM). Having previously read Laurel’s “Crossroads”, I had set myself up for a voice I knew I could trust to entertain/horrify me and wanted to see how her Debut novel read compared to the very polished and brilliantly written “Crossroads”. A core element in what made her later novel a success for me was the character work and relationship the MC had with her recently departed son, so I was hoping for similar work here, and Hightower delivers, and it is really what makes this debut novel stand out from the field.

Without giving too much away, the book’s MC, Rose McFarland, a Memphis SWAT sniper, is introduced as she is in the field with her crosshairs trained on a man that has taken his own two children and their mother hostage, at gunpoint. After resolving the incident satisfactorily, Rose experiences a paranormal shock, which triggers memories of her abusive childhood, which in turn trigger a series of paranormal events which center around herself and her son. As other members of the Swat team go missing, and her own family is threatened by what appear to be ghosts, Rose is forced to confront her own traumatized past in order to face a haunting undead spirit, hell-bent on revenge.

I think I managed to be suitably vague there 😀 Right, on with the actual good stuff 😀

Rose is lovingly and realistically fleshed out with the care and attention of an Author far more experienced than Laurel was when she wrote this book, and Rose is immediately likable, flawed, relatable and complex. So, everything a reader would wish for. Mrs. Hightower than layers on an interwoven patchwork family and two male love interests, with two children from separate fathers also completing the jumble – and for me, that was the real book here. It’s messy, complicated, holding together disparate family relationships that really shows life in all its glory, and is the reason so many readers have hailed the book a triumph. Yes, the horror in the book is violent, sudden, uncensored and raw, but that contrast to the loving mismatch of people we come to like and care about make the horror something that is then personal. It’s the groundwork here that wins the reader. It’s the horror that seals the deal as we scale the heights.

And what heights Mrs. Hightower aims for. We have ghosts, hostage situations, burn victims, real-life shootings, psychological horror, paranormal horror – and this is a debut novel, remember. And it works, because Laurel has invested time and effort into her world-building and key character development. You care about the characters because they are flawed, hurting, and hold together regardless of their differences because they, like we, trust each other. Laurel’s voice, which won me over in Crossroads, is full of compassion and introspection, a win-win for the reader and the meat of the book. The flow is great, you are captured by the drama of the first scene, but then we are thrown into the middle of the love triangle and patchwork family, which rightly hold center stage in this novel. There’s a real human heart beating here.

This IS a debut novel – for me, the ending is a little flawed, it is almost too neat, too rounded in its summary, as the loose ends are tied off and the resolution to the threads are resolved, the i’s are dotted and the T’s crossed. Charlie’s last threat is basically dropped, it disappears as other battles are won. And I think that gets the feel-good factor for the majority of the readership, but for me I wanted that sour taste to be present, or unresolved, or for the whole thing to have cost more. But that’s because I’m a mean ol’ Austrian, and my wishes for alternate endings have no place in the review of what stands on the page, which, let me leave no doubt here, is first-class storytelling. Add to that the fact that this was Laurel’s debut, and you really have something extraordinary. As far as character relationships go, Laurel is in a class of her own, and her books remain well-observed, lovingly rendered and terrifyingly human. Which has to be the definition of the craft of writing itself.

I’m giving this 4.5 stars, which I am rounding up to a 5-star review because of the ridiculous rating system of Goodreads, which seems to penalize writers more than promote them. I’d rather Laurel is benefitted than hindered by my middle star rating.

This is a stunning debut.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

AUTHOR

Laurel Hightower, a bourbon and beer girl, she’s a fan of horror movies and true-life ghost stories. Whispers in the Dark is her first novel, though there are always more in the pipeline, and she loves researching anything horror-related. Her newest release, Crossroads is well received in the Horror Community and available right now. You can follow Laurel on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Amazon.

REVIEWER

Austrian Spencer does not watch horror films, though enjoys horror books.  His influences include Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, The family King, Iain M.Banks, from whom he wishes to learn. Be inspired. He owes them everything, despite their beards. The Sadeiest is Austrian’s debut novel. You can follow Janelle on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Amazon.

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