Live roleplaying, ritual sacrifice and 14th century magic. There’s a lot of buttons being pushed right upfront in Sara Townsend’s very English hobby horror.
We begin amidst a woodland adventure with our main characters introduced in a blur between real (fictional) life and their fantasy characters questing through a forest in the dark. There’s a clear sense of Townsend writing from experience here as the mechanics are laid out carefully to set up the plot which will become the main focus of the novel.
Gradually we move from geeky past times into murder mystery, with a slice of meticulous character development first. David is a trainee doctor, his best friend Mark is a computer programmer and works with Elizabeth who is a Resident Evil gaming expert. We then have her brother Linus, Chelsea, his date for the adventure and Helen, David’s suffering girlfriend.
There’s tensions between the group and Townsend takes her time setting these out. In many ways this is an unconventional approach. At this stage, the writing doesn’t focus on what will become the main story theme and it’s difficult to reconcile this with the what the book promised initially.
However, when people start dying in the most gruesome ways imaginable, we’re into the promised bloody meat of a horror story. The meticulousness of Townsend’s writing is strongest in the descriptions of crime scenes and the consequences of violence. Sometimes this is what the characters do to each other and sometimes what is done to them, by the titular, Whispering Death.
The twists and turns of the story take us into areas a horror writer might not usually go. Whilst you might expect blood and gore, the detailed depiction of relationships, guilt, shame and isolation is cut from the cloth of a different genre, making the book unusual, but more memorable for it. Townsend is clearly a writer who embraces detail in this aspect as well and this assists the realistic depiction of characters like Helen and Linus and the circumstances they find themselves in.
That said, sometimes the meticulousness and the choices of the writer cut against the story. To begin with, any speculation over who might be performing the murders is quickly exorcised by a viewpoint scene. The mystery and mythic qualities of the supernatural elements are also rationalised and codified, limiting the presented puzzle and mystery of the story elements. The closing scenes in the woodland play out with very real description, but a strange sterility and quipping tone in the dialogue that goes against the mature plot choices the writer has made before.
There is a lot to like about The Whispering Death. However, it is difficult to categorise it as a horror story, owing to the way it cuts against the tropes of horror writing. In some respects that’s a very positive thing, as we get a much needed mature depiction of real lives affected by supernatural events and in others its less positive as the use of myth and mystery might have left the reader with more imaginative nightmares after finishing the book.
Written on 24th March 2016 by Allen Stroud.
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