Below - By Laurel Hightower
Laurel Hightower is pretty much an instant-buy for me, I was so impressed with “Crossroads”, her wonderful grief horror novella – and her debut horror/police procedural “Whispers in the dark”, and she has consistently offered great short stories in the anthologies I have read which have been enriched by her presence. So, when the pre-order for Below came out from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing (Max Booth III) and their imprint Ghoulish books – I jumped. It landed on my kindle midday yesterday and I started it at around 9 PM last night. When I put it down to finally allow myself to go to sleep, it was at the 70% marker on the kindle, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember the time passing.
In comparison to the slow creeping horror build of Crossroads, or Whispers in the dark, the pacing on this one is relentless – wonderfully so. The character work here is fantastic, both on Abby (the MC) and Mads, the trucker she meets who accompanies her on a drive through the mountains. It’s so nice to find a trucker in a novel presented as a decent human being – they exist – there are men out there that are considerate and have no background agenda other than being who they are. I adored the lengths he went to, to assure Abby of his honest intentions and his acceptance of her hesitance. Great work, Laurel (We’re going to overlook what he was trucking, for the moment).
With a solid base and lots of great internal thought from the MC, we head into the mountains where the action begins in earnest. And this is where my personal reception of the book is probably going to differ from everyone else on the planet. It’s clearly skewed - I get it, I am in a minority.
You see – I don’t watch horror films. Because they scare me.
There are too many films with jump scares and gore (I love writing and reading about gore, but hate to see it). My problem is, I am a details nerd at heart. My brain insists that every uncanny thing be explained in some way. I need to understand the theory of the thing – even if it is just “that’s something mystical” or “It’s an alien, they can do things we can’t” or “he/she was hallucinating”. Even “It’s a mystery.” Will do in a pinch.
Before reading this, I’d heard the term “Mothman”. That’s it. I hadn’t seen a film, read a book, heard a rumor. I know nothing about the Mothman or Mothmen, or Mothlegend. I’m pretty much a Mothvirgin if we are going to lay all our cards on the table. With regards to familiar tropes surrounding that legend, I am clueless. He’s the guy in the mirror where you say his name three times and he rips out your throat with a fishhook hand after you’ve opened a puzzle box, right?
Having finished the novella, I went online to get a brief background of the Mothman and the Mothman prophecies, so could see some similarities here that are based on those tie-ins. In retrospect, I can see that those tie-ins and familiar elements would make the reading experience “warmer” – they are tips of the hat to regulars – a shared passion that is unspoken. I, of course, had none of that. No “ah! There’s the bridge” moments.
It didn’t make an iota of difference.
This novella is a blast of a “hunted/stalked/Creature feature” trailblazing hour of adrenaline-fueled horror. I may very well have forgotten to breathe. I am pretty certain that I entered a time bubble and the world outside of it slowed down. The “Why?” and “How?” of this novel are not explained. Similar in style to the small number of horror movies I have seen, those details aren’t important when compared to “survive”. And rightly so – not everything out there is going to have a rational or even an irrational explanation.
That underlying uncertainty flavored everything – was the Mothman controlling the white teeth beings? Who was the wide grin man? Was the electric static something caused by the Mothman? Were the CB messages the Mothman? Where did the Truck go? What were the bodies all about? Was Parker a real human or was it Mothman’s voice again? What are the white-teeth-mermen anyway? Why does her ex-husband have a beard?
There’s so much open here, and normally my nerd brain would be screaming in frustration, but the prose was so relentless, so smooth, so absorbing and hypnotic and thrilling, I just didn’t want to think about any of it. I just wanted to see Abby escape and kick ass and have a life outside of Brian and his (now wet) beard. The sanctimonious git.
I’m left in the unusual and uncomfortable position of knowing that I didn’t get a lot of the references here, I can’t guess at the tie-ins to the existing franchise, haven’t the shared universe knowledge to pull further meaning out of Laurel’s narrative.
But I loved this. Every screaming terror-filled moment of it. I have no idea what I just read but it was a blast and flew by so quickly I think my kindle might have started smoking at one point. You know how kindles have that “predictive time left in the chapter” feature at the bottom?
I think it just gave up. There wasn’t any point, it would have taken longer to calculate than it took to read on.
5 out of 5 ⭐'s. Loved it. I have no idea what happened, or why, and for once I don’t care. You rock, Laurel, and may you continue to do so for a long, long time.
Shout out to Trevor Henderson for the great cover art.
You can buy Below, by clicking on the appropriate Amazon link, below:
You can visit Laurel's website, HERE.
You can find Laurel on Instagram, HERE.
You can find Laurel on Twitter, HERE.
You can find Laurel on Facebook, HERE.