Tuesday, May 03, 2016

American Gothic: The May Queen Murders by Sarah Jude

Now, Ivy girl, you gotta know there's bad out in them woods, and the worst kind of bad Rowan's Glen has ever known is Birch Markle. Things weren't ever right with the Markle boy. There was no real reason for the things he done, but sometimes, well, evil's like that.

Like Brigadoon, the legendary Scots village that appears once a century, Rowan's Glen is a place out of sync with time, a late-nineteenth century-type settlement, set back in the Ozarks, with Scots-Irish folks with feet in two centuries. And that's the way Ivy Middleton likes it.

The kids at the consolidated high school roll their eyes and call them "The Cult," or "the hillbillies," or "the hippies," but Ivy loves the long ruffled skirts she and her best friend and cousin Heather make and the Glen's superstitions and spooky folktales her granny used to talk about, that is, before she stopped talking at all.  The Glen is a place where a death in the family means all the clocks in the house must be stopped, where the glimpse of a "shadow self" forewarns of death, and where little kids are warned to stay on the roads, out of the woods, and be home by twilight for fear of Birch Markle, Rowan Glen's own bogeyman who seems to choose one girl in each generation for his own blood sacrifice.

But this spring Heather is different. Ivy is used to their sharing all their secrets, but suddenly Heather has a secret she says she can't share, one that has her slipping out at night, and meeting with someone in the old stable by lanternlight. Ivy, too, realizes that her feelings are now different for her old playmate Rook Meriwether, whose touch is now "like a dandelion scattering inside her, seeds full of possibility." And now Rowan's Glen's leaders have decided it's time to revive the old May Day celebration and crown a May Queen, even though the old ones whisper that two girls, twenty years apart, were found brutally murdered on the day they were were chosen Queen of the May.

"He comes for girls with secrets," Aunt Rue tells Ivey, "you know, Terra McAvoy and my girl. And you. Nothing can stop him."

As the day approaches, favorite dogs go missing and are found mutilated in the woods. And when Heather is chosen to be the new May Queen. Ivy feels that she must protect her friend, her cousin, by following her on her night wanderings, despite the reports that Birch Markle is again heard screaming in the woods, the stench of death about the wild skins he wears. Rook and some of his friends agree to help Ivy protect Heather, but soon Ivy discovers her cousin drowned in the pond in the woods. And then they stumble upon what a cache of old dry bones, a bullet through the skull, crammed in the hollow of a tree.

Whose bones are they? And who is stalking the young girls of Rowan's Glen? And why?

Sarah Jude's forthcoming The May Queen Murders (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is pure American Gothic, filled with rich symbolism of Light and Dark, Good and Evil, Life and Death. Ivey's granny's self-imposed silence is like the community refusal to speak about the monstrous power among them, and Rook's quiet battle against the alien, poisonous belladonna shrubs that he doggedly roots out each spring.

Readers who like an atmospheric tale will find this one an engrossing read. Jude builds an eerie ambiance which hangs over Rowan's Glen like the spring fog as the story moves inexorably to its hair-raising conclusion, one whose terror is tempered by the almost other-worldly setting and the characters who insist, in true terror-tale typecasting, to go, against all warnings, down that twilight road, into that abandoned stable, or through those mist-shrouded woods to what awaits beyond.

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