It’s not that this book is that blood-curdlingly scary – though it has its moments. The violence isn’t graphic or outrageous and the final reveal might not stun you. What’s compelling about Dark Tides is simply that it’s very well written. While you’re reading it, you won’t be able to think about anything else. Your mind won’t drift, and you’ll be wrapped up in this Halloween thriller right up to the final full stop on page 440.
The book opens in a dark, creepy, remote cottage on Halloween, 2014. The floorboards are creaking, and Claire Cooper is being stalked by a killer. We’re not sure where she is, or why she’s being menaced, but it’s clear she’s close to being killed. Then, as the story unfolds, we’re taken back to Claire’s previous Halloweens – some of which have been equally traumatic. However, as the book is set on the Isle of Man, it’s not Halloween we’re talking about, really. Instead, it’s Hop-tu-naa – the island’s own version of the festival.
So, we see Claire as a young girl. Her turnip lantern has been carved (it’s an Isle of Man thing), she’s in a witch costume, and her mother takes her to Edward Caine’s house. With menacing, bulbous eyes, and pallid skin, he’s her mother’s employer and has a habit of forcing the woman to work late. Resenting this, Claire sings a particularly mean Hop-tu-naa song suggesting that Edward’s wife won’t be coming home tonight. This is true, because Edward’s wife is recently deceased and he and his young boy Morgan are on their own. That very night, Claire’s own mother disappears never to be seen again. She and her father are devastated.
Claire grows up a shy and distant girl. As a teen, she falls in with a quirky gang that includes sassy schoolmate Rachel, and a group of slightly older boys – David, Mark, Scott and Callum. It becomes their ritual to perform dares each Hop-tu-naa. They go into some woods blindfolded, pull driving stunts on the island’s TT rally roads, and experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex.
So far, so hormonal, but one night they break into the Caine mansion. They want to leave a spooky symbol on Edward’s hearth, believing him to be away in London with Morgan. But they’re caught in the house and a brutal scene plays out. Instead of exorcising some of her Hop-tu-naa ghosts, the stunt only inflames Claire’s psychological wounds, adding to the guilt she feels. It fractures the group, but worse than that it’s the cue for a killer to start hunting them down one by one.
Anchoring the plotline to 31 October is an effective technique and although we jump from past to present, it’s always clear what’s going on. As the unknown killer comes into play we are given his viewpoint in snippets, alongside Claire’s narration. That itself is excellently written. It’s not often that male authors craft female characters this convincingly, and it’s not often that you have a narrator whose voice is so absorbing. No tangents, no extraneous philosophising, just what you need to know about her story. And yet it’s never too spare, there is enough of her soul in there to make the character seem real.
Claire grows up to become a policewoman, but as her friends are murdered she’s forced to compromise her work. At first, the deaths appear to be accidents. When Claire becomes suspicious, it occurs to her that the murderer could be one of the group. Or, he could be someone seeking revenge on them. Your guess is as good as hers but like any good mystery she finds clues along the way that might help you put it together yourself. Whether or not you do, the ending takes us back to that dark, creepy cottage where she has to face down the killer and her past. All is revealed in a conclusion that’s both gripping and emotional, and will leave you satisfied and relieved. I reckon you should make Dark Tides your Halloween treat this year.
Read our interview with Chris Ewan here.
Faber & Faber Crime
CFL Rating: 5 Stars