The Devil Crept In is the second people-go-into-the-woods-and-bad-things-happen book I’ve read this year (after Nick Cutter’s excellent Little Heaven), and the third in recent memory (including Paul Tremblay’s excellent Disappearance at Devil’s Rock). Ania Ahlborn’s latest novel stands shoulder-to-shoulder with those two—not just because of the premise, but because of the excellence of its execution.
Deer Valley, Oregon, is no stranger to tragedy. Years ago, one of its youngest citizens, a boy named Max Larsen, disappeared into its woods, only to be found dead much later. Pets have a habit of going missing, too; many of them vaulting their own fences in order to run headlong into those selfsame woods, never to be seen again. It’s a thing the whole town knows about, but no one wants to talk about.
And then one day another boy, Jude Brighton, doesn’t come home. There’s a perfunctory search, but it doesn’t satisfy Jude’s cousin and best friend, Stevie Clark. Stevie knows the townspeople didn’t have the highest opinion of Jude to begin with, and feels like they’re not concerned enough about his fate. In fact, as he begins to ask questions and snoop around town, he gets the feeling that people have been expecting something like this to happen, and maybe they think it’s just as well that it happened to a kid like Jude.
Ahlborn does a great job of making readers feel the confusion, dread and frustration that Stevie feels—right up until around the halfway point of the novel, when she pulls the curtain back to show the truth of what’s happening in a ramshackle old house deep in the woods of Deer Valley. It’s a risky move, but Ahlborn pulls it off. This shift could have derailed the reading experience; instead it transforms it, letting us feel the enormity of the danger Stevie faces, and upping the level of dread we feel for him.
This is Ahlborn’s most atmospheric work to date. It also features some of her best character work. Both Jude and Stevie have their faults, and either of them could have become the sort of annoying kid character you don’t mind seeing fall early; however, through glimpses of their home lives and some genuinely moving, vulnerable moments, they become characters you can empathize with. Another character, a lonely woman I won’t reveal too much about, could easily be the villain of the piece, but Ahlborn makes her far more complex than what’s on the surface.
With The Devil Crept In, Ania Ahlborn continues her steady climb through the ranks of horror, proving once again that she’s got the chops, the ideas, and the innate storytelling ability required to build a long and successful career.