Author: Darcy Coates
Margot never knew her parents. They sent her away to live with her grandmother early in her life. They never wrote. Never visited. Never called. And now, they’re dead and she’s inherited their empire: a famous winery with a horrifying backstory.
Coming to Gallows Hill for the first time, Margot looks over this house, this land that she now owns. The winery was built on a site where convicts used to be hanged. The hanging tree itself is the emblem of the winery, and the oldest and most expensive vintages are stored in wood barrels made from the tree. The land is said to be cursed, and certainly something doesn’t seem right. But the wine makes big $$$.
Margot can’t forget the expressions of her parents in their caskets. Two normal people who went to bed one night and never woke up. A peaceful seeming death, except their expressions, except the yawning mouths that won’t stay sewn shut, the sightless eyes that keep popping stiches. It’s a closed casket funeral.
As Margot settles in and tries to determine if she wants to take over this business, strange things start to happen. Soon, she learns why her parents sent her away. By then, it’s far too late, and Margot is fighting the cursed land for her own life. Can she figure out why the dead do not stay settled? Can she ever help them find rest, or is she now doomed to a short, brutal life of horror in a haunted house on a cursed land?
As with all things Darcy Coates, the writing and atmosphere is gothic, yet suitably modern, that Goldilocks-just-right feeling that makes her books shine. Margot is a sympathetic character, one we’re happy to pair with and follow as she starts to wander around the creaking old house, noticing things that don’t make sense, finding The Watcher, investigating stains that will not wash out, and seeing things from the corner of her eyes. Gallows Hill certainly seems cursed. This is no simple ghost from the beyond, but something a lot more ornate, more deadly, more powerful, and very, very angry.
The story progresses slowly. The atmosphere here is meant to be the star, and it is, but soon the things that go bump in the night become tiresome. We want some action. We want to truly see something. The jump scares and sleepless nights and Margot’s wanderings are the usual horror fodder – the typical stupid actions that distance us from the plot. If Margot feels this, sees this, why not leave? Of course, here, the richness of her new empire, compared to the non-existent life she had before helps us make more sense of why she stays, but still. The creaking and spooky house noises quickly became repetitive and uninteresting.
About the time readers are giving up, expecting this to be one of those subtle jump scare novels, Coates brings her surprise. The novel goes from slow to action packed. This is where it gets good. The curse is revealed, and the horror is an onslaught as Margot attempts to survive, dodging and weaving through moonlight landscapes and houses filled with horror, trying to stay one step ahead, trying to outrun something ancient and evil until the dawn breaks and the cursed land goes quite again.
I admit, I’d lost interest, but once the curse gets fully explained and Margot is plunged into it, I got back into the story. The new, high-octane approach was much needed, and the creativity behind the curse – behind the “ghosts” that walk the land – was an enjoyable twist on classic horror.
The reveal was a little saccharine, in true Coates style. We do get an answer, although not a full one, for the curse. It’s just as horrifying as it is disgusting, and it’s a nice twist, although it doesn’t really explain the undead convicts, something the characters themselves note and then dismiss.
Gallows Hill is a good novel. It’s not Coates’ greatest work, but it does have merit and especially once the curse breaks, it becomes a thoroughly entertaining and edge-of-the-seat story.
– Frances Carden
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