This is a non-spoiler review.
When Thomas Tilbrook receives a letter telling him that his estranged father is dying, he realises it’s finally time to go back to the Cambridgeshire Fens. But going back evokes memories of the last time he saw his father—memories that he can’t entirely trust.
Thomas remembers the summer of 1990 like it was yesterday: long hot days in the sun, watching the World Cup on TV… and his best friend John going missing.
He remembers how the silence of the adults had forced him to investigate what had happened to John with his brother and cousins. After all, who knew the hidden pathways and secrets of a village better than they did? Could it have been the local bogeyman Shaky Jake? Could one of the creatures on his deck of horror cards have been responsible? Could it be the dead tree with the sinister smile that watched him from a nearby field?
…or could the truth be closer to home and far worse than he could ever possibly have imagined?
I loved Guy Fawkes: Demon Hunter, but DEAD BRANCHES is…. well, I adore it. I finished with Guy and immediately picked this up, and didn’t put it down again until I finished the last page.
Let’s go ahead and start with the opening line, “He’s dying.” What an opener – if that doesn’t pull you in right away, nothing will. Two words in and we already have questions (who’s dying, how does the protagonist feel about this, how do WE feel about this, will this death signify something, etc.?). I could bang on about how much I love that first line for an eternity, but I’ll spare you my neverending ramble about how much I appreciate evocative opening statements like that, lest you die of old age as you continue reading.
This story follows Tom, our protagonist, and is written in the first-person. Now, this perspective is a tricky mistress. A lot of people can do it well enough, but the only person I’ve read that I believe truly masters this art – and I mean, nails it every time – is Kit Power. Until now. MWAHAHAHAHAHA. Benjamin Langley has now joined Kit on the shortest ‘best of’ list in my head, for this particular skill. What Langley does really well in writing this way, is creating the question of whether or not the narrator is reliable. Most of the time, you sort of take it as a given that the narrator is giving an honest account, unless you have obvious reason to think otherwise, but I just wasn’t sure with this book. There were times that reading this felt like the literary equivalent of watching a found-footage film, in that I was permanently scared for the protagonist and was just stumbling along with them, fearing the unknown.
Another major highlight for me is the ‘past’ and ‘present’ format, meaning that with each new chapter, we’re jumping from Tom’s childhood to his present. When used effectively, this is one of my favourite literary devices. I love it here. Langley often opens up some little mystery, or introduces an intriguing idea, only to end a chapter and then either throw you back to Tom’s childhood, or hurl you from childhood into his present, delaying you from reaching the next chronological point in the story. You’d think this would slow down or altogether bring the pacing to a grinding halt, but it’s quite the opposite because both timelines are equally as engaging. I could not stop turning those pages!
His use of this time-switching device is particularly effective when we’re in the ‘present’ chapters, and Tom tells us something like he has no contact with his dad, and then it takes several of the ‘past’ chapters to find out why, or to untangle what initally seemed like a small detail. I was thoroughly engaged.
Speaking of smaller details that are woven in, Langley is basically a master at this. His character setups and developments are exceptional because of the way he feeds the reader information about them. Take this introduction to Uncle Rodney, for example:
“Come on, boy!” he called again. “Your Uncle Rodney’s here.”
I stuttered down the stairs. Each footstep felt heavy. I could already feel my nostrils being invaded by his alcohol stink.
Five sentences is all Langley uses to communicate that Rodney is someone that Tom’s father clearly believes is worthy of an audience with his son, that Tom’s nerves are frayed because Rodney has arrived, that despite this, Tom is obedient to his father, that Rodney is an alcoholic, that Tom is aware of this, that Tom is repelled by him, that there’s some dichotomy between the way Tom’s father views Rodney and how he treats Tom, and how Tom himself sees the relationship, and that there must be some basis for such a strong reaction to the mere news that his uncle is visiting. We get all this without Langley explicitely stating any of those details. He writes characters so well that even when the character in question is awful, the experience of reading about them is pleasurable because they’re so authentically described and depicted. From a granddad that pulls the old ‘look at this coin I just found behind your ear’ trick, to a janitor who always whistles but only whistles songs that no one recognises, Langley’s characters feel real enough to be sitting next to you.
The story is tense, intriguing, engaging, and emotive. A third of the way through, I was convinced there were aliens, and then I was convinced there were ghosts, and then I was convinced it was plain old human evil, and then I went back to aliens. I’ll not share what’s actually going on, but needless to say, it’s so much fun when there are multiple possibilities set up. It makes everything unpredictable and exciting because you never know which way the story will turn next.
It’s not really fair to write a ‘critique’ without criticising anything so I guess… I suppose… there was a bit too much detail about the football games for me. That said, I detest football so much that even the sound of a football crowd (you know the sound when you put it on TV and it’s like that white noise roar of people), is enough to make the red mist descend. I blame working in pubs and bars for years on match days – if you know what that’s like, then you probably know why football just strikes fury into the very fibre of my being.
I’d recommend this book to people who enjoy… well basically, anyone who enjoys great writing. The story is most suited for people who enjoy horror/thriller/mystery blends, coming-of-age horror tales, and horror with fantasy elements.
If you’d like to get your own copy, you can get it here:
If you’d like to check out Ben and his works, you can find him on social media, and also here:
If you’d like to check out more from the publisher of DEAD BRANCHES, you can find them here:
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