Jonathan Edward Durham’s engrossing novel, Winterset Hollow, mixes dark fantasy and horror in an allegory about retribution and reparation.
Protagonist Eamon was raised in isolation by a paranoid father who disappeared when Eamon was 14. Bounced around the system, he escaped into books, his favorite being E.B. Addington’s Winterset Hollow. Ostensibly a cozy fable of talking woodland animals, the story had an inexplicably personal draw on Eamon.
Caroline shares Eamon’s affection for Winterset Hollow. She’s the enchantingly bookish girlfriend of Eamon’s jovial best friend Mark—which is why Eamon, Mark, and Caroline have made a pilgrimage to Addington’s ancestral home, Addington Isle, just in time for the “Barley Day” feast that comprises the book’s centerpieces.
They find more than they bargain for, discovering to their short-lived delight that the magical characters of Winterset Hollow are living and real; but, unlike Addington’s beloved characters, these real-world counterparts have dark intentions and a sadistic taste for violence. Now Eamon and his friends are forced to fight for their lives while trying to escape the secluded island, but not before stumbling over the bloody truth of how Eamon is connected to it all.
Winterset Hollow is fast-paced, carefully plotted, and elevated at every turn by Durham’s skillful character development and light-handed exposition. Through inserted poems from Addington’s book, readers are lulled into the cozy familiarity of something like Pooh Corner while, in parallel, the main narrative offers just a hint of foreboding before spiraling out into danger and suspense.
Durham is a talented author, and this is a high concept, genre-blending fable that takes real narrative risks. Each of them pays off, arriving at a conclusion as inevitable in hindsight as it is unanticipated. Winterset Hollow offers readers everything from entertainment and escape to provocative meditations on topics ranging from childhood trauma to genocide. In the end, it doesn’t actually matter which reason causes readers to pick up Winterset Hollow, because few will be able to put it down.