James Brogden has followed Hekla’s Children with another tale of long-buried horrors unearthed, but the author’s interest in British history and folklore is combined with an ambition and narrative slipperiness that makes this a compelling chiller in its own right.
The story begins with a fantastically rendered moment of horror in the form of an accident, as Rachel Cooper loses her arm while on a canal holiday in the Black Country. Her phantom limb syndrome takes on an otherworldly dimension when she realises that her missing limb can reach into the world beyond and draw the dead back into the realm of the living. However, there’s a price to be paid and a balance to all things, and when she becomes involved with the spirit of Oak Mary, a tree-bound corpse who became an urban legend, she opens herself and her loved ones up to a world of danger.
Brogden is juggling an impressive amount in The Hollow Tree and, as the story nears the halfway point, it seems as if he might not find a way to keep everything in the air. He spends a lot of time following Rachel through her recuperation and relationship struggles with her partner Tom, and we seem to be heading towards a traditional “don’t mess with forces you don’t understand” story.
Stick with it, though, because once Oak Mary goes from nightmare spirit to a character with a voice, or voices, of her own, the story gets significantly more interesting and a lot more emotionally involving. Brogden keeps up a steady supply of shocks and chills but what really impresses is the way in which decades of pain, lies and misogyny tear their way to the surface as Rachel fights for truth and justice with as much determination as she does for her own survival.