Scott Thomas has it in for Kansas. His debut novel, the acclaimed Kill Creek, took place in a haunted house in Kansas' rural countryside, and the author has returned to his native Sunflower State for his second standalone novel, Violet. There, however, the similarities end. Where Kill Creek was a meta-commentary on horror authors and their chosen genre, Violet is a direct, affecting, and psychologically thrilling slice of Midwestern gothic.
This book, like Kill Creek, revolves around a single edifice. In the case of Violet, it's a cabin outside the fictional town of Pacington, Kan. Kris Barlow inherits the lakeside retreat from her deceased father, but she's also grappling with another loss: the death of her husband Jonah in a car accident. Kris brings her eight-year-old daughter Sadie to the cabin that overlooks the perhaps too obviously named Lost Lake, the idea being to spend the summer healing amid the bucolic bluffs and waters.
But the cabin is also where Kris watched her mother die of cancer 30 years prior, and there's little solace to be found, especially when Sadie begins to act strangely—a development that mirrors a rash of disturbing goings-on in town, as the townspeople seem to innately fear. When Sadie starts to spend too much private time in the cabin's "secret playroom," a storage area that Kris loved to retreat into as a little girl, a mysterious presence begins to make itself felt. And not in a good way.
Make no mistake: There isn't a shred of originality to Violet. Then again, it doesn't need any. Thomas' scary tropes may be well-worn, but his slowly gathering storm spirals around the poignant relationship between Kris and Sadie, a link that strains as daughter grows more estranged from mother. Thomas' deft use of flashbacks and vignettes unveils layer after layer of his characters' psyches, and his employment of everyday details in the service of sheer, skin-crawling fright is masterful. You'll never hear The Beatles' "Blackbird" or look at a hive of bees the same way ever again. Violet's horror is quiet, an emanation from the shadows rather than an assault of guts and gore. And the book's big reveal is as satisfying as it is soul-wrenchingly unsettling, a peek behind the darkness of grief when it's pulled back like a curtain. The deeper you get into Violet, the more immersive it is. It takes a while, though. Thomas' penchant for loving details and lush description border on maddening in the first half of the book, but his slow pace eventually wins out—especially when it becomes clear that his beautifully delineated backdrop of Kansan mundanity only makes his revelations of terror all the more pronounced in comparison. The atmosphere is brooding and foreboding; the foreshadowing is pregnant with suspense. Thomas knows how to smolder, and the misty waters of Lost Lake gape and beckon as ominously as the unknown itself.
"Can thoughts breathe?" It's something Sadie asks herself in the middle of Violet, and the context is enough to curdle blood. Thomas' asks many tough questions throughout his novel: How does pain manifest, both inside and outside ourselves? Can the bonds between mother and daughter transcend reality? What does it cost a relationship to share a tragedy? Above all, though, what's the psychic price of survival? Thomas has crafted an indelible story of childhood games and grownup anxieties, all wrapped in a supernatural shroud that unfurls from the heart of America. Whether or not thoughts can breathe, books certainly can, and Violet does exactly that.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller
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