Maine-based author Elizabeth Hand writes widely across the crime fiction and dark fantasy genres. With her crime novels we’ve grown used to cold climate settings, and the Cass Neary series has taken readers from New England to Iceland, across the UK and over to Sweden. Now, inspired by a visit to her daughter in Hawai’i, the author leaves those cold, frigid shores behind for a place that’s hot, humid and in turmoil. And yet Hokuloa Road still has the power to send a chill down your spine.
Grady Kendall is a carpenter in his 20s whose life is spluttering along. He carries the grief of his father’s suicide and the death of his best friend with him at all times. His brother’s an addict who has been in and out of jail. His best friend lives in the woods, prepping for the apocalypse. Grady’s mother seems to be the only vaguely stable person in his life. When things get challenging, Grady backs away and cracks open a case of Pabst. Often, he’ll finish it.
To break the pattern and escape locked-down Maine, he takes a job as a caretaker on the Big Island in Hawai’i. His new boss is Wesley Minton, an eccentric billionaire who needs someone to look after one of his homes while he does conservation work down at the remote end point of the fictional Hokuloa peninsula. Living in a worker’s cottage, Grady is the only person for miles around. He fixes things up at Minton’s house, which includes an aviary of rare Hawai’ian birds and marine aquaria full of deadly purple sea urchins. Bizarre.
At one time, Minton was a property developer hoping to build a resort on Hokuloa Point, but authorisation was revoked and somehow he converted to conservationism. Also bizarre.
On the flight over, Grady meets a young woman called Jessica. They get talking and it’s suggested that maybe they’ll meet up after they’ve quarantined for COVID. Once Grady starts work at Minton’s place, he realises how lonely it is on the estate, although he befriends Dalita, a Hawai’ian woman who brings him supplies and has worked for Minton in the past. Through her, and by reading local news sites, he comes to understand the landscape, culture and society better.
What he notices is that people go missing a lot, and nothing is done about it. Then he hears that Jessie has disappeared at the same time as a well-known surfer called Leonardo.
By the time this happens, Grady is already spooked. Whether it’s the beer, cannabis gummies, jet lag or the extreme heat, he thinks he’s seeing and hearing things. It feels like there’s a big predator in the jungle, grunting, growling, snuffling and crying out in the night. He sees a dog-man creature that rises up on two feet, its maw gaping like a black void, eyes white and misted over. It terrifies him. Perhaps we’re in for an experience similar to The Terror by Dan Simmons?
What makes Elizabeth Hand’s books so captivating is that, like Simmons, she works myth, legend, folklore and other apocryphal stories into her mysteries, adding her own elements and tailoring weird myths and ancient knowledge to her stories. Not only does it bring depth and texture, it really dials up the creepiness. There’s an ambiguity in Hokuloa Road – are the crimes human, or is there a supernatural element at work? The intrigue lies in working out how much of the horror is in Grady’s mind, how much is man’s inhumanity to man, and why is it happening?
Embarrassed that people will think he’s a drunk or can’t acclimatise, Grady is circumspect about telling anyone what he’s seen. When he eventually opens up to Dalita, she can neither confirm nor deny the existence of ancient spirits – such as Kaupe – guarding the islands.
It begins to feel like the island itself might be reacting to its colonisation. Billionaire developers are cutting down its ancient forests, tourist interlopers are crashing through protected jungles, the coral reef is dying due to the toxic chemicals in sunscreen, and people are disappearing. Is Grady about to become a victim of the island’s guardians? Or, as he suspects, is there a serial killer on the loose – one whose life is made easier by the large number of itinerants, a high turnover in visitors and corrupt police and officials?
With lava flows, cliffs, gulches and dense jungle, the island’s geography is treacherous – and as mentioned, the place feels like an active participant in the plot. The weather itself can turn deadly. This is an author who never disappoints when it comes to generating atmosphere, and in Grady you’ll meet a low-key, melancholy protagonist who must rise to the occasion if he wants to survive long enough to find Jessie.
Hokuloa Road is a novel that works at many levels, but at its heart is Grady’s journey which heads to a gripping and deadly conclusion as he faces his demons, literally and figuratively. The finale isn’t quite as spectacular, jaw-dropping or complex as the build-up. However, the book is exemplary when it comes to constructing a world, an atmosphere and a belief system, with a plot and a fully fleshed-out setting that make it impossible to put down. A go-to chilling read, whether it’s hot or cold in your part of the world.
Also see The Island by Adrian McKinty for a more action-oriented island-based thriller.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars