Somewhere in the weird mess that is HEMLOCK GROVE is a germ of a good idea: Two teenagers — one a werewolf, the other a vampire — team up to catch the savage monster preying on the teenage girls in their town.
How anyone could screw up such a simple, yet fun idea as that is beyond me. But debuting author Brian McGreevy, in his effort to reinvent the Gothic horror novel as a tale of modern teen angst (think THE CATCHER IN THE RYE if it were written by Anne Rice — on second thought, don’t), serves up an overwritten and overstuffed novel that ultimately goes nowhere, with a cast of characters that are, well, characters.
Peter Rumancek is the high school outcast, descended from a family of gypsies and trying to keep out of trouble. For some reason, Peter has no problem telling people he’s a werewolf.
Roman Godfrey is the heir to the Godfrey fortune and local teen aristocrat who dabbles in drugs and casual sex. Roman is also an upir (a Russian term for a vampire who can travel about during daylight).
Shelley Godfrey is Roman’s mute 7.5-feet-tall sister, who walks around with her feet encased in blocks of potting soil. She also glows. (And yes, the author nearly hits us over the head with the comparison by naming her Shelley.)
Essentially, McGreevy is updating the werewolf, vampire and Frankenstein’s monster mythos for a modern audience, but along the way, he loses sight of the clever idea he had at the beginning: two monsters teaming to stop another monster. Instead, he throws just about every Gothic horror staple he can at the reader: witches and witchcraft, second sight, horrible deaths, the rich family ruling over a small town, sinister mad scientists, etc.
Eventually, the reader becomes lost in the morass of plotlines:
• What exactly is Shelley Godfrey, and is she truly alive?
• What is going on at the biotech facility that appears to have carte blanche to do whatever they wish?
• Is Roman’s mother behind any of the grisly deaths, and what exactly is her agenda?
Along the way, we’re struck with several underlying questions:
• Will all of the plotlines be resolved by the novel’s end?
• Or at least, will most of them be resolved?
• Does the burgeoning friendship between Peter and Roman seem believable?
• Will any of the characters achieve a semblance of likability?
• Does it make sense that Roman — a rich and handsome young man with the upir ability to make people do whatever he wants — pays women for sex?
• Is it really that much of a mystery who the killer is, especially since the author practically holds up a flashing neon sign when the character is introduced?
• Do we, the reading public, care who makes it to the end?
Sadly, the answer to these and many other questions raised by HEMLOCK GROVE is “no.”
What could have been a fun and clever horror novel is lost in unresolved plotlines, out-of-character moments orchestrated for either a quick laugh or forced suspense, and near-impenetrable prose:
“The green-eyed boy sat alone in the food court and fingered the needle in his pocket. The syringe was empty and unused, he had no use of the syringe. He had use of the needle. The green-eyed boy, he was called Roman, but what you will have seen first was the eyes, wore a tailored Milanese blazer, one hand in pocket, and blue jeans. He was pale and lean and as handsome as a hatchet, and in egregious style and snobbery a hopeless contrast from the suburban mall food court where he sat and looked in the middle distance and fidgeted the needle in his pocket. And then he saw the girl. The blonde girl at the Twist in pumps and a mini-skirt, leaning in that skirt as though daring her not to, or some taunting mystic withholding revelation. Also, he saw, alone.”
Yes, where McGreevy could have used one sentence to get his point across, he uses five. Also, as you can see, he plays fast and loose with sentence construction and punctuation. If the entire novel was written in that style — a hybrid of Victorian flowery prose and the halting gait of someone who is not native to the English language — then perhaps I could have become accustomed to it.
But McGreevy shifts back and forth between that strange prose-as-verse style and modern usage, so much so that it continues to jar the reader every time he jump-cuts between the two. After a while, I learned to skim along to keep the story moving.
How this book got a publisher — not to mention an Eli Roth-produced TV series deal out of Netflix, which debuted last week and prompted this new paperback tie-in edition — is the greatest mystery. The only thing I can think is that McGreevy sold it based on the premise, and once the TV deal was made, the editor in charge of the project took an extended holiday. That’s a shame, really, because an editor could have done something with this: chopped out the superfluous bits, rearranged the Chinese puzzle-box sentences, and forced the author to either resolve his superfluous plotlines or cut them completely.
I enjoy a good hamburger. This could have been a good hamburger. Instead, it’s a fast-food hamburger buried under a pile of garnish so that it’s unrecognizable … yet the publisher is swearing it’s a steak.
It’s not. —Slade Grayson