This book was sent to me by Titan Books in exchange for an honest review.
14.05.19 / Horror-Thriller / Titan Books / Paperback / 432pp / 978-1785659959
Target Audience: Readers who like dark, twisted and gory folklore tales with plenty of relevant themes and good/bad/evil characters. For those who like a suspenseful read that grows in intensity until the point of no return and you are in it until the end.
About The Plague Stones
After a brutal break-in leaves her family traumatised, Trish Feenan jumps at the chance of a fresh start in a charming historic community. But in the back garden of her new cottage sits an unsettling reminder of past wrongs: a standing stone, once one of the markers that kept plague sufferers outside the village bounds, its ‘powers’ renewed every year in a ritual that seems to be more than just local oddity.
As the Feenans settle in, they experience unexplained accidents, accompanied by sightings of a girl who vanishes into thin air. Soon, it becomes obvious that there is a reason traditions must not slip, and that all acts of betrayal, even those committed centuries ago, have consequences…
My Review of The Plague Stones
Bringing the Bubonic Plague into to the 21st century in a biblical fashion is a tricky thing to do with intensity, meaning and finesse which will also appeal to a 2019 audience. Luckily for us, when the force and skill of James Brogden’s writing meets the unimaginable suffering and rich folklore of the Black Death, we get a superb and unforgettable read called The Plague Stones. Add in some interesting themes about traditions, customs and class divides as well as horrific imagery and gruesome vengeance and you have a recipe for a superb novel that will unsettle you to your core.
The Plague Stones filled me with dread, chilled me to the bone and left me astonished at how ferocious the plague was and how far communities went to protect themselves, damning others to suffer alone. The Black Death decimated almost 2/3 of the world’s population in the 14th century and cases still pop up even in our medically advanced 21st century. It swept the lands with such horror that people didn’t think that even god could be capable of such evil and that this was a force of its own nature. James Brogden has done a phenomenal job bringing his own interpretation of the folklore surrounding the plague to the present day in a meaningful way. (That wasn’t meant to rhyme…)
The Feenan’s are compelled to reconsider an offer to move to the community of Haleswell after a break-in left their son Toby injured and feeling unsafe in their own home. Trish Feenan has been offered a Trustee position after her distant relative, who previously held the position, passed away. The Feenans are welcomed into the town and its Trust and asked only to look after the parish stone connected to their new home and to participate in all of the community events surrounding the stones that encircle the town.
Suspicious but grateful, the Keenan’s move in to Stone Cottage and restart their lives. Trish, Peter and Toby begin to see and feel the presence of a young girl who tries to trick them into injuring themselves or worse. To scared that the others won’t believe them, they each avoid the subject and fear the next time she will appear. Eventually the Trust, and research by Toby, reveal that the nefarious and raging spirit is Hester Attlowe who died alongside her community in the 14th century as the Black Death swept the lands. Hester wants revenge on those who protect Haleswell because their atrocities and betrayals drove everyone she loves into the ground.
‘The slight figure of the girl walking calmly beside him was ravaged with marks of a terrible disease which had not just bloomed out of Her sores and pustules, but eaten craters of infection and necrosis into her flesh which could not be faked. He could see the deep tissues of Her muscles working as she walked, though he tried not to look at her directly, partly because he was terrified of Her reaction but also because, well, staring was rude.’ P153
Hester swore endless vengeance against the town of Haleswell and has murdered every leader of the community ever since. The plague stones that the Trustee’s guard prevent Hester from crossing into Haleswell and harming those who protect the town but Hester has her ways of breaking through and exploiting weakness. Though the Keenan’s were tricked into taking over Stone Cottage, it is too late, Hester will attempt to claim their lives too. But the Keenan’s aren’t ready to go down without a fight. The Plague Stones brings with it pestilence, rage, fear and revenge all the way to its gruesome ending. It is not for the faint hearted but those who enter will be rewarded with a fascinating story that explores plenty of interesting characters and horrifying realities.
First off I want to say that though this novel is fundamentally dark and sad at times, it does have its charms. I found the Feenan’s to be great central characters who were easy to invest in. The novel also digs into Hester’s past which has its moments too. Being told from multiple perspectives helped build up the suspenseful atmosphere and the trepidation surrounding each person being targeted by Hester and her fellow villagers. Hester is an amazing presence and you can feel her skulking around in every second of the book. She isn’t just a pissed of ghost, Hester is a force of nature that was born of personal and infectious tragedy and she’ll stick in my mind as one of the best ill-treated spirits ever put to page.
Toby Feenan is also a intriguing character as his path has many dark twists and emotional turns which kept me glued to the page. His relationships with the three women in his life, his mother Trish, Maya (a Serbian classmate) and Hester following his every move, all have different tones that manage well enough to pull the narrative in the direction it needs to go. There is also another character who stands out as his arc develops in the background of the narrative (with heart-breaking results) but for spoiler reasons I will leave it a surprise. There is a serious amount of rage flowing through this novel that comes from quite a few characters so be prepared to be emotionally charged when reading this novel.
The narrative was complex enough to keep me engaged with a story of betrayal that spans nearly 700 years and a modern day community that is being punished for its ancestors mistakes. A story of history repeating itself and breaking the cycle of anger and sorrow. Though it is easily the themes that are the most gripping element of the novel. There are religious themes and imagery that accentuate the biblical side of such a devastating pandemic. Folklore and mythological themes which delve into ancient entities, traditions and rituals. JB gives us fascinatingly disturbing insights into the Black Death and its destructive nature. It even touches (most sadly) on class divides and how the high and mighty protect themselves from those they see as lesser.
I was absorbed by these themes and they successfully enriched this otherwise spine-chilling read. The Plague Stones can be a hard book to stomach at times. There are scenes that I never wanted to envisage, including the fox, so thanks for that JB… But with James Brogden’s style, his suspense that drip feeds dread into the narrative, poisoning the well of goodness, and his development of a foreboding atmosphere, it was hard not to get sucked in to this story. James Brogden’s writing is coarse, blunt and dramatic. He doesn’t hide behind fancy words. JB has nothing to hide and I liked that about The Plague Stones. It is in-your-face, harrowing but it has these charms to it that help it come full circle.
The Plague Stones is an awesome, memorable yet grisly thriller that will both unsettle and connect with a huge variety of readers and stick in their minds long after finishing. It is a story of rage and revenge but also of recompense so I highly recommend it to you all. Though if you see the word fox, J would definitely skip a few pages as you can never unsee that. Not ever…
About James Brogden
James Brogden is the author of The Narrows, Tourmaline and The Realt. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in anthologies and periodicals ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He spent many years living in Australia, but now lives in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire with his wife and two daughters.