At the Mountains of Madness meets They Live! in a new novel from Matt Hayward, the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of What Do Monsters Fear? After comedian Leo Cartwright performs his farewell comedy show in New York City, a young man ailed by cerebral palsy confides in him about odd dreams and a place he calls No Man’s Land. Leo thinks nothing of it until the man, Christopher Tate, winds up dead, along with a cryptic note taped to the comedian’s RV window: See you soon, Funnyman. Leo sets out to find the truth about Christopher’s dreams to an odd town named Elswich. Shown to Leo in a dream by a mysterious man named Jarrad Prescott, the town prays to an Otherworldly god named Aypep and give their bodies to host his children in return for eternal life in the Otherworld. It’s a wish granted through sacrifice…
There’s a strong tradition in American horror of the backwards rural town where strange, ungodly things happen. It’s a sad, rundown place seen in films including Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes that confuses and threatens the modern urban dweller. This book sits perfectly within this subgenre as the town of Elswich, North Carolina is full of violent inhabitants who not only threaten the city folk that pass through their town but the whole of humanity.
The book begins with an outsider infiltrating this closed community. Jonesy Morris is a retired musician who is looking for his young son Caleb, an innocent child who doesn’t belong in such a backwards place and who doesn’t know that Jonesy is his father. Although Jonesy is suspicious of the town from the beginning, he soon realises that there’s something really not right there.
Jonesy and Caleb bump into Leo Cartwright, a retired comedian who has just performed his final show in New York. On the night of the show, Leo met a young fan, Christopher, who told him of a place on another plain of existence called No Man’s Land which is linked with Elswich. When Christopher dies, Leo is convinced that he owes it to Christopher to go to Elswich and figure out what’s going on. He borrows an RV and heads to the town, picking up Jonesy and Caleb on the way. Although Jonesy and Leo are going to Elswich for very different reasons, they soon realise what is really going on there and that they make a good team. Along with Kate, an old friend of Leo’s and a part-time actor, they are determined to save the world. The result is a magnificently creepy and grotesque story of cultish horror.
As previously mentioned, the stalwarts of this subgenre are replete with inbreeding and crazed lunatics. In a variation here, this story has a supernatural element as the town’s inhabitants have become hosts for monstrous creatures. The inhabitants worship their God Aypep and make their sacrifices in the church. As an apocalyptic and cultish religious horror story, the church is at the heart of the town and is the location of much of the action and horror. This religious element of the book is interesting; religious elements don’t usually interest me but they are integrated well with the subgenre in this case. Religious elements are also intertwined with body horror as the ghastly grotesqueness of the hosts and the monsters within them echo the Alien films and the films of David Cronenberg.
It’s wholly intentional that I’ve compared the book to several films and film franchises. Hayward’s writing is incredibly sophisticated and it’s also very cinematic. Although Hayward uses tropes that have been used time and time again, they are made utterly refreshing by his writing. From the very beginning, The Faithful reads like the very best of Stephen King and what really stands out is Hayward’s gift with compelling and witty but very realistic dialogue. In addition, even the secondary characters are colourfully and expertly written, far from the clichés they usually are in the horror genre. And the heroes are also realistic, relatable, and sympathetic through their various flaws. My only slight quibble from a character perspective is that Kate could have been a little more developed. Leo and Jonesy are extremely well-developed so it would have been nice for a female character to be similarly developed.
The pacing is also perfect throughout. I often find that horror can either drown in description for the sake of suspense or can be overly wrought with action and gore but there’s the perfect mix between the two here. The climax could have been drawn out a bit more but it is still exciting and satisfying and expertly written.
With The Faithful, Hayward, the most exciting writer in the horror genre continues to deliver. The result is a highly entertaining and very skilfully written book that is a mix of body horror and cult-based horror. I first read Hayward’s work in horror anthology Welcome to the Show Curated by Matt Hayward and Doug Murano published by Crystal Lake Publishing. His short story, ‘Dark Stage’, is similarly well written and invokes the demons that accompany mortality. Now I need to go and read the rest of his work.
Thanks to Matt Hayward and Sinister Grin Press for providing a review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
About the author
Matt Hayward is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author and musician from Wicklow, Ireland. His books include BRAIN DEAD BLUES, WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR?, PRACTITIONERS (with Patrick Lacey), and the upcoming THE FAITHFUL. He compiled the anthology WELCOME TO THE SHOW, and is currently writing a novel with Bryan Smith. Matt wrote the comic book THIS IS HOW IT ENDS (now a music video) for the band WALKING PAPERS, and received a nomination for Irish short story of the year from Penguin Books in 2017.