[Book Review] BURN THE DARK

The resurgence of the witch into the popular consciousness has led to some awesome avenues for modern horror. Long relegated to the B-team, the concept of witches has, in recent decades, been seen as an outmoded form of horror expression. At this point, however, there seems to be no denying that the witch is becoming the next big thing.

Today’s depiction of witches and witchery is a lot more nuanced than it has been in the past. Like all monsters, they need an evolution to stay relevant and effective. Perhaps owing to the growing popularity of IRL witchcraft, no longer are we content to view witches as the lone crone in the woods brewing potions and mixing poultices. Today’s witch, as a narrative archetype, is far more sinister.

Author S.A. Hunt makes this distinction well-known early in their novel, BURN THE DARK, the first entry into their new Malus Domestica series. “You gotta get this in your head right now: these fuckers ain’t Wiccans or hippies…These bitches are the real deal. Lieutenants from Hell on a vacation to Earth.” These words, uttered by our hero, Robin Martine, in the opening pages of BURN THE DARK, are a welcome distinction between the modern practicing witch and the modern narrative witch.

Robin, who forms the bulk of our focus throughout the novel, is your typical monster hunter archetype. She travels the country seeking these “lieutenants from Hell” and dispatching them with due haste. She is a Van Helsing for the modern age, well-trained and equipped with the tools she needs to hunt and kill the minions of darkness who walk amongst us. She makes her living streaming her exploits on YouTube, where her fans think she makes exceptionally well-done horror shorts in the found footage format.

It’s an intriguing conceit that also helps to explain why more people aren’t aware of these seemingly all-powerful monsters intent on draining the energy from all who surround them. When confronted with the reality of the world, how many of us choose to just look away? It’s a lot easier to dismiss something as fake than to accept the reality that the world is, in a word, fucked. 

Her hunt brings her to the town of Blackfield, Georgia, where Robin prepares to facedown what might be the most powerful coven in the country, if not in the world. It’s also the town she grew up before being whisked away as a ward of the state following her mother’s death, a death she now believes was a result of the coven’s wicked machinations. 

BURN THE DARK sets up a potentially great new series filled with action and horror. Hunt, who made their name in the self-published world before being picked up by Tor, is well-practiced at concocting page-turning plots that beg to be consumed in as few sittings as possible. They alternate effortlessly between moments of quiet and moments of terror, with the suspense building exponentially the deeper Robin follows her mystery.

That mystery leads Robin down a spiraling path, during which she must confront her conceptions, her past, and her trauma. Through all the action and all the horror, Hunt explores themes of mental illness and trauma, both of which plague Robin to the point of uncertainty.

As the first book in a series, BURN THE DARK suffers somewhat from a lack of resolution. There is definitely a larger arc to this story that is not fully encompassed by this book, and so much of this entry is devoted to setting the board. Thankfully, books two and three are both promised for release later this year, so we don’t have long to wait to find out where this story takes us. And luckily that does little to diminish the enjoyment found with these pages.

Hunt has horror down cold, and BURN THE DARK is littered with scenes of shocking suspense. One can’t help but wonder what else they have in store for us as the series progresses. If this book is meant merely to set the stage for the story to come, then we are in for the wildest of rides. It’s a fascinating world Hunt’s built so far and incomplete though the story is it’s all the better to leave you wanting more.

If nothing else, Hunt proves that the witch, as a concept, still has a lot of room left to explore within the popular culture. The underlying mythos they establish within the novel leaves plenty to dive into and explore while we wait these long months between installments. Though primarily an action-horror work, Hunt takes cues from the world of fantasy, leaving us fascinating nuggets throughout the book that beg for consideration and contemplation as this world gets more fleshed out. 

All told, BURN THE DARK is a delightful surprise for those wanting to sink their teeth into a breezy but still taut narrative. With a badass lady taking center stage, the Malus Domestica series promises to be a wonder of pulp horror that pushes classic concepts deep into modern times. There’s a lot of promise and potential held within the pages of this opening entry, and if Hunt can stick the landing in books two and three then they will be the new certifiable badass of popular horror fiction.

James Roberts
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