A book review by Richard Martin

Welcome to Rick’s Read-Along. A new series presented by Horror Oasis where I visit an author’s entire back catalogue and encourage you, the reader, to read along with me.  I will publish my thoughts on each book every two weeks, while also announcing the next book I’ll be reading. Every author selected will be someone whose back catalogue is readily available and is somebody we feel our readers will enjoy discovering along with us. I hope that you’ll all join me in sharing your thoughts.

The first author in the series will be Gemma Amor. Gemma is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated writer whose books include Dear Laura, Cruel Works of Nature, White Pines, Girl on Fire and These Wounds We Make, all of which Gemma has self-published, as well as producing her own unique and beautiful cover art. Not content with conquering the world of indie horror, Gemma is also a successful podcast writer, contributing to the No Sleep and Shadows at the Door Podcast as well as co-creating the female-centric comedy-horror audio drama, Calling Darkness. Visit her website at gemmaamorauthor.com

Gemma Amor is an author I have heard many wonderful things about, dating back to her 2019 Bram Stoker Award nomination for the book I have selected to begin my journey with: Dear Laura. This series of articles marks my first time reading her work and I’m looking forward to sharing this experience with you all and, hopefully, hearing what you all thought of the books. As these articles are intended to encourage people to read these books along with me there will obviously be spoilers ahead, although I will strive to keep them minor and avoid spoiling major reveals or twists along the way for those who haven’t read it yet.

After starting out my Gemma Amor journey with Dear Laura, a bleak but brief novella (119 pages), then following up with a collection of short stories (Cruel Works of Nature) I was intrigued to try out a much longer work of hers, and White Pines certainly fits that bill, my ebook copy clocking in at a whopping 444 pages. This epic folk horror novel, with hints of the cosmic, is far similar in tone to the downbeat Dear Laura than some of the more fun offerings from Cruel Works of Nature, but while it may share a somewhat similar tone, and some themes (a female protagonist trapped in a situation she has no power over, her predicament becoming an obsession that drives her) it is a very different reading experience and feels like a far deeper dive, both into the character and the world they inhabit.

The book opens with a prologue that is explicitly set after the presumed events of the book and I’ll revisit that at a later point, as much like Stephen King’s opening to ‘Salems Lot’, knowing what we do as a result of this prologue fundamentally changes how we as a reader react to certain events in the book. The prologue also introduces us to Megan, the book’s protagonist, whose life changes irrevocably within the first chapter as her husband returns home to spring a divorce upon her. This early scene felt very grounded and realistic to me, devoid of blazing rows and stilted dialogue, and this grounding is a welcome change of pace to the big scale prologue and the weirdness that is to come later in the book. Megan goes through a lot in these early chapters emotionally, but ultimately deals with the shock by getting as far away as she can; to Taire-Faire, a remote house in rural Scotland once owned by her late Grandmother, bequeathed to Megan in her will.

Her arrival at the remote Highlands of Scotland and her early encounters with the locals give off very strong ‘The Wicker Man’ vibes. From the very minute of her arrival, as she finds mysterious stones with unusual carvings dotted both inside and outside the house and a very unwelcome and cryptic greeting from a mysterious man and the local post office owner, things don’t feel right and we immediately get the sense that Megan’s unexpected arrival is going to be a catalyst for… something, and probably not anything good.

It doesn’t take long for White Pines to start hinting at some very big scale, very weird goings-on at Taire-Faire and it’s clear there is going to be more to this novel than a creepy village and creepier locals with an ‘is it or isn’t it’ question hanging over the supernatural elements. It was refreshing to be let in on the fact that yes, there are 100% supernatural goings-on here and the book very quickly becomes exciting and tense because you get a sense that anything could happen and that there are no limits. Even feeling this way, ‘White Pines’ goes in some pretty unexpected directions.

From the very moment that it’s mentioned, Gruinard Island feels central to the mystery. Megan herself seems inexplicably drawn to it, and Amor makes a point to note how the locals not only seem focused on it but there are even elements of the village itself that seems centred around its existence. I was expecting White Pines to lead up to a big finale when Megan finally finds her way over to Gruinard and we get some answers to the intriguing questions that are starting to build.

I’m going to get a little vague from here on out because I strongly feel that White Pines is best enjoyed when going in knowing as little as possible, and don’t want to spoil anything further for people reading this without first having read the book. Needless to say, my expectations regarding the island were wrong, and we actually get to visit there pretty early on, and we get the answers to these questions much earlier in the book than I expected and, once we do, what has so far been a very mysterious setup that is raising a lot of questions and delivering few answers, takes what I can only modestly describe as ‘a bit of a left turn’.

Comparisons to ‘The Wicker Man’ can now be changed to similarities with ‘Twin Peaks’, with a lot of strange and impossible imagery, jarring occurrences that come completely out of the blue to offer explanations that go far beyond what we were expecting. What Megan finds at the island is such an unexpected revelation that it almost feels that, from this point on, we’re reading a completely different book with only Megan there to anchor it with what has gone before.

It works, and it works really well, and that is largely down to Megan. She is such a complex and interesting character that goes on such an incredible journey throughout White Pines, that the increasingly strange goings-on and the escalating scale and unpredictability of the story never take away from the fact that the whole book is about her, and her experiences and it is how she deals with and reacts to these bizarre happenings that matters to us, not so much the events themselves. The character we see on the final page is so fundamentally different to the one we first see in the midst of a divorce, with all the conflicting emotions that come with, and her journey is what the book is ultimately about, every action and event told via her eyes and everything, even the cosmic scale occurrences, only serve to get her from where she starts out, to where she needs to be at the books end.

Speaking of the books ending, a lot rides on it after so many mysterious questions and unexpected developments, a lot of which (in the grand cosmic tradition) are beyond the understanding of us mortals and defy explanation, not to mention that Megan’s journey to this point demands a satisfactory resolution. The ending we get manages that rare trick of being both unexpected and, retrospectively, the only way things ever could have ended. It will make you think back on what precedes it and leave you with a lot to think about once you’ve put the book down.

White Pines was not the book I expected. The plot throws so many curveballs the reader’s way, changing the book’s trajectory. The isolated village and the unspoken threats of the early passages are light years away from the pagan gods, cosmic monsters and other words that come later, and although the book is a long one, at no point are we given the opportunity to become complacent, or get bored, because there is always something happening, and it is never what we expect. The prologue seems to offer answers but the further in we get, the more we realise that we just got a small glimpse at one tiny part of a much bigger puzzle. As a straight folk horror novel with some cosmic elements thrown in for good measure, the novel is very effective, but what elevates it is the grounding of these big ideas and crazy visuals in a character who is going on the same extraordinary journey that we are and I for one would have been happy to follow Megan through whatever story was going to be told. 

Please join me back here in 2 weeks, when we will be reading Gemma’s second short story collection, These Wounds We Make. Hope to see you all then!

Richard Martin

Richard Martin

Reviewer

Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books. 

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