Review: The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste

cover of The Haunting of VelkwoodThe Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste
S&S/Saga Press (March 5, 2024)
256 pages; $26.99 hardcover; e-book $12.99
Reviewed by Dave Simms

Sometimes a ghost story breaks through the confines of the tried and true and creates something different. Something unique. Something both beautiful and painful. 2024 is turning out to be an incredible year for dark fiction, and Gwendolyn Kiste just raised the bar for everyone with The Haunting of Velkwood, a novel that redefines the subgenre in the best way possible. It breaks and rewrites the rules that Stephen King, Richard Matheson and ,of course, Shirley Jackson, wrote. For those unfamiliar with Kiste’s work, this would be a fine place to begin.

The Velkwood Vicinity became infamous for an event that occurred twenty years ago. Houses and people simply disappeared from reality — at least our reality — leaving behind a vacant lot that nobody could ever tread upon. People would attempt to walk into it and wind up back outside the area. Those who studied the event concluded that a boundary, veil, or something else cloaks what once was (is?) there, blocking people in this reality from viewing what happened there.

But are those people dead? Somewhere else? And could possibly have caused it?

Talitha Velkwood was at college when her mother, sister, and home vanished. Talitha and friends Brett and Grace couldn’t put enough space between them and their past lives in that neighborhood. Since then, all three have coped in their own ways as life moved on and the paranormal groups and news channels slowly forgot about what happened. She’s struggled to find her place in the world, bouncing from job to job, never putting down roots after her own were torn from existence.

A paranormal group reaches out and offers her a good chunk of money to go back to where it all began, believing that she could enter Velkwood and discover what really happened.

Once she does, something magical and terrifying happens. What she thought was long gone — is, and isn’t — still there beyond the veil.

What she experiences is heartbreaking, but also amazing in how Kiste builds this supernatural town. She weaves together the tale of how the past is always with Talitha and the others, how it continues to threaten the present, and future, and challenges the notion of going home again. The relationship building is stronger than the world construction as Talitha, Brett, and Grace must face what they left behind and discover the harsh realities that the lost area has kept entombed like a spider awaiting its prey.

What ensues is fantastic both in concept and execution. This might be the author’s masterpiece. The bond between the three women and their families is complex, toxic, mysterious, and beautiful — all in various ways, sometimes all at once.

Comparisons to the classics in haunted house lore will be inevitable, as well as nods to modern shows and films, as readers tend to label (a natural response, of course) yet The Haunting of Velkwood manages to carve out a special nook for itself.

Prediction: this makes not only many year’s best in horror lists, but lists for the best books overall in 2024.

Highly recommended.

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