Witch Bottle By Tom Fletcher: An atmospheric horror tale - book review -
As the nights draw in and the weather turns chilly, what better time to indulge your senses in an atmospheric horror tale, set amidst the dark and brooding countryside of a remote corner of west Cumbria?
Tom Fletcher, who was born and still lives in this wild and wonderful area, has been impressing critics with a string of thrilling, chilling literary novels, including The Leaping and The Thing on the Shore, and here he delivers a modern gothic stunner exploring the nature of repressed guilt, grief and fear.
At the heart of the terrifying, slow-burning, exquisitely wrought Witch Bottle is an aspiring but failed writer who left his wife and his young daughter two years ago and escaped to the easy monotony of working as a milkman, relishing the aloneness of his life, his job and his rural surroundings.
Since he walked out on his family, Daniel has lived a solitary, soulless life in a remote part of Cumbria… he doesn’t have his hair cut, he never shaves and seldom showers. Instead he dreams about the fantasy novel he will one day write and immerses himself in the routine of his daily milk round.
Daniel once had a baby brother but he died a long time ago, and his marriage didn’t work out. So now he’s alone and the only demand on him is coping with unreasonable customer demands and the vagaries of his enigmatic depot boss Bean, who doesn’t just look like a runner bean but is also ‘tall, flat and tough.’
But things are changing. Daniel has started having nightmares, seeing things that can’t possibly be there… like the naked, emaciated, stinking giant which voraciously consumes flesh and bone, and which Daniel knows instinctively is a ‘real thing’ happening ‘somewhere beneath the surface of the world.’
And it’s not just at night that bad things are happening to him… more and more locals are seeing ghosts, and who are the increasingly numerous, creepy and threatening Fallen Stock men who collect heaps of animal corpses from ‘the shadiest corners’ of farm yards?
Shaken and unnerved, and with a deepening inner knowledge that ‘something terrible approaches,’ Daniel opens up to local white witch Kathryn from the La’al Tattie Shop. She can’t discern the origins of his haunting, but she can provide him with a ‘witch bottle’ to protect from unwanted spirits if, in return, he will deliver her products on his rounds.
But not everyone is happy to find people meddling with witch bottles and things are about to get a whole lot worse…
With his gift for atmospherics, psychological intensity and words that paint pictures, Fletcher perfectly evokes a landscape rendered breathtakingly bleak, malign and utterly compelling as Daniel and the other villagers are increasingly drawn into a growing shadow of evil.
And as Daniel’s deeply buried emotions, his troubled childhood and his feelings of guilt – which encompass not just events in his own life but what he sees as the sins of the world – weigh ever heavier, so too do his disturbing visions and the spine-tingling sense of unease.
Blending the mundane with the menacing, the normal with the paranormal, and dark humour with the downright horrific, Fletcher warps reality with such a deft touch that the shocking finale arrives like a punch in the solar plexus.
Superbly imagined, and with cast of complex characters who loom large from the page, this is the spook factor on slow-release!
(Jo Fletcher Books, trade paperback, £16.99)