Last year’s dark fantasy underdog breakout, Hekla’s Children, brought the subgenre to life again with a mix of heavy action, horror, and fantasy, with a style that read quicker than a demon on a blood-slicked luge to hell. James Brogden became known in the mix of genres as a voice to be reckoned with, but second novels can be a downfall.
The Hollow Tree is anything but. In fact, it surpasses Brogden’s first effort by miles, which, if one read Hekla’s Children, is very tough to accomplish. The story begins with a remarkable character, Rachel Cooper, who loses her hand in a horrible accident. Afterwards, she is plagued by nightmarish visions of another woman, one who may have lived several lives. She experiences scenes of a gypsy witch, a nazi spy, and a prostitute, all who have met untimely deaths.
Rachel also begins to feel the phantom sensations of a hand no longer there, of items that were never there. First, leaves in the grass that she can’t see. Then a cat, who she somehow pulls into her world. The story takes hold of an unreality that harkens back to a Clive Barker-meets-Neil Gaiman world as more items creep through the hole her missing hand has created.
Soon, Rachel takes hold of Mary (Oak Mary, named after the legend where she was buried long ago) and brings her across the threshold into this world. The story truly takes off in a whirlwind of imagination as the two struggle to figure out Mary’s life, death, and future, as well as what else is about to cross over to come for both of them.
Brogden has created another highly satisfying novel here, one that feels both familiar and original. Again, his writing styles lends itself to a fast read, the nearly 500 pages a blur with a thriller’s pace that eschews the descriptive traps of traditional fantasy. This novel should be considered as one of the highlights of the year, for both horror and fantasy lovers.