They Say a Girl Died Here Once by Sarah Pinborough
Earthling Publications (October 2016)
202 pages; $35 signed & numbered hardcover; $400 lettered edition
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand
Every year for the last 11 years, Earthling Publications has played Santa on our “Horror Christmas,” a/k/a Halloween. Their gift to us each year: a new entry in the Halloween Series, a collection of short novels written by some of the best the horror genre has to offer. We’re talking your Peter Crowthers, your Gary McMahons, your Glen Hirshbergs, your James A. Moores, etc. The cream of the crop.
You’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of this series or read any of them—they are published in extremely limited quantities of 500 copies plus a smaller run of deluxe editions (the series starter—Mr. Dark’s Carnival by Glen Hirshberg—was only offered as a run of 15 handmade hardcovers), so they tend to disappear quickly. I fully expect that to be the case with this year’s entry, They Say a Girl Died Here Once, written by soon-to-be-an-overnight-success Sarah Pinborough.
Like most overnight successes, Pinborough has been honing her craft for years, beginning with a run of paperback horror originals for Leisure before expanding into young adult and fantasy work. The early word on Behind Her Eyes, coming from Flatiron, MacMillan in January 2017, is that it’s an unrelenting Hitchcockian thriller that will be her breakout book. That may prove to be true, but for me, They Say a Girl Died Here Once is her true arrival.
Anna and her family—mother, Claire; sister, Caroline; and grandmother, Evelyn—have fled to Evelyn’s hometown after a world-upending incident Anna only refers to as “the thing.” We don’t know much about “the thing,” only that Anna doesn’t fully remember it and her family is ashamed of it. It’s a secret that has driven a wedge into the family—a family that was already fractured when the father left them a number of years ago. As they settle into their new normal, all Anna wants is to keep her head down and avoid any kind of attention, good or bad.
In addition to rebuilding her life and confidence, Anna has the extra responsibility of caring for her grandmother while Claire is working nights. Evelyn is in the early stages of dementia, currently manifesting itself in late night strolls around the house and increasingly eerie proclamations, often made in front of the basement door. Once Anna learns about the unsolved murders of two local girls, she begins to suspect that something otherworldly is using her grandmother as a vessel, filling in the blank spaces in her aging mind with memories—and using her to cry out for help that’s already too late coming.
The relationship between Anna and Evelyn is the heart of the book. It’s contentious at first, with Evelyn blaming Anna at least in part for “the thing.” But, as Evelyn begins to understand what’s happening to her during her spells, it helps her understand the helplessness Anna feels about her own situation. The strengthening of their relationship in increasingly frightening circumstances is handled realistically and organically, and is truly a high point of the book.
Pinborough rounds out the rest of the cast nicely, creating a realistic portrait of a family at odds but still trying to love and care for one another. Anna’s mother is exhausted, physically and emotionally,
prone to lash out but also trying desperately to hold on to the bonds that are left. Caroline, confused and scared at the hostile turn her relationship with Anna sometimes takes, manages to be endearing and annoying all at the same time—just like a real younger sibling. The new relationships this foursome makes as they settle into their new town are likewise realistically drawn, from Evelyn’s doting old flame to the cocky, borderline lecherous handyman courting Claire, to the rebellious new friend that clues Anna in to the town’s darkest secrets.
Pinborough wrings stark, creepy atmosphere from settings (the family’s old house, a nearby cemetery) and situations (Evelyn’s nightly strolls and ramblings) alike. Along the way she plants enough believeable red herrings to keep things interesting until her final gut-wrenching reveal, a thunderclap of a final twist that I’ll admit completely blindsided me.
This, friends, is what it feels like when an author is hitting on all cylinders. Sarah Pinborough is poised to stake her claim at the top of the horror heap, and They Say a Girl Died Here Once is the start of her victory lap. Enjoy the ride.