My favorite book series for the longest time was “The Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These books were set in the American Midwest in the late 1800s.
Hearts Strange and Dreadful transports us to New England in 1821 and I, for one, could not have been more eager to make the trip back in time to this familiar era.
Tim McGregor vividly sets up time and place as he introduces his readers to Hester Stokely, a capable young woman orphaned at an early age. She has been adopted into her aunt and uncle’s family to help care for the Stokelys’ modest home and farmland.
I can’t stress enough how indulgently delicious this book is in its setting and atmosphere. I was so fully immersed in this world and invested in the affairs of McGregor’s citizens of Wickstead, I had difficulty pulling myself out of it on occasion. He does an amazing job developing characters with meaningful interactions and setting up small-town drama in order for readers to truly get a sense that all of this is real and authentic.
Of course, this also speaks to a point I tend to make over and over again which is: Horror is the most successful when there is some kind of emotional investment. So, the more I felt myself caring for the lives of these fictional people, the more vulnerable I felt to the ominous dread building behind the scenes. What was Tim McGregor going to unleash on these lovely people?
At first, it’s disease. Later, it’s something far more evil and insidious. The most exciting aspect of this tale for me was that I had listened to a podcast recently where the real life supernatural aspect of this story was explained and it was the very first time I had ever heard of the unusual events that transpired in New England during a plague. As soon as some of the same details began manifesting themselves in Hearts Strange and Dreadful, I was beside myself with joy. I love when authors are inspired by true events and I couldn’t wait to see how some of the horrifying details would play out.
Verdict: I was horrified. There’s one scene in particular that lingered well past the point of closing the book and laying it aside. Some people might grow impatient with the slow-building dread and tension. The horror genre can sometimes spoil readers with too much action upfront. There could be a temptation to rush through to get to the climax, but I’d like to urge readers to succumb to McGregor’s deliberate set-up and just enjoy this carefully plotted story, well-developed characters, and masterful storytelling. I’m already adding this to both my Best Of 2021 List and my All-Time Favorite Books List. I loved it that much.