I had certain expectations for Unbury Carol. That was foolish. I should know by now, after reading much of Josh Malerman’s output (except, somehow, the one that got everybody talking about him to begin with: Bird Box), that he is not going to deliver the expected. So, when I allowed the title and the synopsis and the cover to lead me to expectations of a western/horror hybrid that would be a dark cross between a fairy tale and a Hammer movie…well, I should have known that wasn’t what I was going to get.
And it wasn’t what I got. Close, but not quite. But that’s okay, because I liked most of what I did get.
What I got was in many ways a bit tamer than what I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach rarely works as well as you think it should. What Malerman delivers here is a mostly straightforward tale of an outlaw, a lady, and a dramatic last-minute rescue. What separates it from the pack is the occasional odd character or occurrence sprinkled throughout—enough to keep it far away from the Louie L’Amour section of your local bookshop.
The lady in question is Carol Evers, who suffers from a rare malady that sends her, with little to no warning, into comas that are indistinguishable from death. A small number of people know her secret; one of them has passed away, and the other is an estranged former boyfriend she hasn’t seen in years. That leaves only her husband, Dwight, and he’s decided that the next “death” she suffers will be her last. Dwight wants her money and his freedom, and when she collapses shortly after her friend’s death, he decides to seize them both. But first, he has to bury Carol.
Word about Carol’s “death” gets to her estranged boyfriend, James Moxie. Moxie has never gotten over Carol, so when he hears that she’s about to be laid to rest, he makes a bold decision: he’s going to ride the Trail one more time to save her. Moxie is your typical brooding outlaw, full of regret over the decisions he made, and the paths he chose, as a younger man. He’s a legend in the area, thanks to the mysterious way in which he once won a duel without drawing his gun. Although he’s put violence behind him, that old outlaw attitude comes bubbling to the surface as he makes his way back to his one true love.
What I like most about Unbury Carol is not the central story itself, but the world it takes place in. I love the Trail, and the little towns it travels through, and the colorful characters that live and die along its path. My advance copy didn’t come with the map of the Trail that’s included in the hardcover, but I like knowing there is a map of the Trail. It makes me think that maybe Malerman will be visiting the Trail again, stopping in on one of the little towns to tell a story about a blacksmith or a cattle rustler or a coven of snake-worshipping witches or who knows what. Or maybe we’ll get more stories about Rot, the most overtly supernatural element of the book, a face-shifting embodiment of death that haunts various characters throughout the story.
I do hope we get more, because there is much to enjoy about Unbury Carol. Malerman takes us inside Carol’s “death” with her, in what she calls Howltown, and her time there makes for some of the most gripping passages in the book. Rot is frightening and mysterious, darting in and out of the story at will, acting as an agent of chaos throughout. Malerman’s writing is stripped down, more accessible here than in his previous novel Black Mad Wheel, but no less engaging.
There are small quibbles as well. I wish there’d been more about the relationship between Moxie and Carol; we see there’s a connection there, even after years apart, but I never got a solid handle on how that connection was forged. The build to the climax is amazing, but the payoff was…not disappointing, but not quite enough. The preceding pages simply set an expectation that was hard to reach.
With Unbury Carol, Josh Malerman continues to blaze an exciting and intriguing trail through the literary world. I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.