Kick off your 2020 reading list with the stunning debut and compelling sequel from William Gorman, a talented horror writer worth taking note of.
A grieving father, a young girl with supernatural power, and a landscape haunted by a gruesome history form a wicked tapestry in William Gorman’s Blackwater Val and Every Foul Spirit.
William Gorman’s debut novel, Blackwater Val, tells the story of a man named Richard Franklin who must return to his hometown in Illinois after the tragic death of his wife in a car accident.
Along with Richard is his precocious daughter, Katie, who has supernatural abilities that figure prominently into the plot as the story goes on. From the opening chapter, in which Richard and his daughter are traveling to the town of Blackwater Valley by car, the characters are marked by symbolic doom (including the stench of a skunk, the sight of a bizarre sinkhole by the side of the road, and Katie seeing strange people wandering nearby).
From there, Gorman’s novel merges terrifying history with small-town horror and creates a fictional world that is at once familiar and entirely strange and new.
Blackwater Val is definitely a novel worth checking out for those who enjoy their horror epic in scope but with relatable characters and situations.
While a protagonist with a tragic past and a town haunted by dreadful secrets might not seem like original motifs, they are handled well by the author. The opening scenes offer many insights into the relationship between the characters and all that they have endured. Often, these insights are revealed through memorable imagery: a turquoise scarf, a copper urn, and a candlelit church all serve to showcase Richard and Katie’s personal struggles and the drama and conflict in store for them.
Later, historical landmarks, old cemeteries, framed photographs, and engraved plaques continue to amplify the tension and to suggest that all is not right in Blackwater Valley. And sure enough, as Katie begins to have alarming visions, as Richard recalls the grim origins of the region, and as the plot introduces new characters (many of them unlikable and villainous), the novel takes a decidedly darker turn.
Blackwater Val is at its strongest when focusing on Richard and Katie.
In one extended sequence, Richard has a horrific memory of his wife’s funeral and recalls a frightening moment on the school playground between Katie and an older boy. As the narrator tells us:
“Richard realized then that all there was in life was heartbreak.”
These scenes are eerie, reflective, and sad, and readers will find something in the backstory of his family to connect to. However, some of the other characters in the book, including an ominous figure known as the Sallow Man and a Native American priest, do not resonate as deeply as do the novel’s protagonists. At times, the plot branches into varied directions that made the electronic version of the novel cumbersome to read (I would recommend that readers invest in a hard copy of the novel, which would make returning to previously-read sections much easier).
Still, Gorman’s debut is a bold attempt to depict a diseased community with multiple characters and several interconnecting storylines.
By the time Blackwater Val reaches its conclusion, readers should be hooked on this story of corruption, deviancy, religious evil, and other dark forces.
Every Foul Spirit
William Gorman continues his Blackwater Valley saga with Every Foul Spirit, this time keeping the focus even more heavily on Katie Franklin, now a grown woman.
Due to the traumatic experiences in the previous installment of Gorman’s story, Katie spent some court-ordered time in a mental health facility before eventually being released into the world, free to rebuild her life with everything she owns packed tightly into three suitcases. But Katie is unable to rest for long, as she feels drawn to a series of ritualistic murders taking place in that familiar haunt of Blackwater Valley. The police chief from the Val calls upon Katie and her supernatural abilities to help him catch the killer and solve the crime; he even provides her with a folder filled with documents about the case.
It is a fairly common set-up that readers have encountered before.
However, the author propels the story forward through quick dialogue, striking imagery, and one disturbing event after the other.
One of the most engaging aspects of the book are those sections told from the killer’s point of view.
Named Mr. Vespers due to his own twisted religious chanting during his murders, the sadistic psychopath is one nasty piece of work: not only does he believe his victims are “foul spirits” corrupting the earth, not only does he use a filleting knife to slash their innocent lives away, but his own body has the powerful ability to change its shape, to mutate and turn monstrous:
“Hideous lips peeled back and the sickly grin began to spread, kept on spreading, until the corners of his mouth threatened to meet behind his head.”
Readers will find this kind of jaw-dropping, horrific imagery peppered throughout all of Every Foul Spirit.
As the novel continues and Katie becomes immersed in her investigation of the crimes, she begins to have strange visions and nightmares. She tries to read the minds of the people she comes across, attempting to discern who might be thinking abnormal thoughts and smoke out the killer. Ultimately, the protagonist’s “sixth sense” enables her to draw conclusions about the murder victims, including information about their injuries and other other unusual anomalies — such as spider bites. But it is not until Katie is forced to confront the killer herself that the mysteries of this short novel come to fruition.
While well-written and entertaining, Every Foul Spirit is not nearly as rich as Blackwater Val. The plot is fairly limited and the events unspool much like those in many other serial killer novels and films. The work might have been better suited as a bonus story at the end of the first novel rather than as an entirely separate manuscript.
That said, William Gorman is a talented writer with a keen eye for stunning and macabre imagery.
And considering how Every Foul Spirit ends, he might not yet be through with Katie Franklin and the treacherous region known as Blackwater Valley.