“Four children disappeared, only one returned”. That’s the short synopsis of Titan Book’s Hekla’s Children. Perhaps they didn’t have the space to elaborate, as this novel is much more than a simple missing persons story. It could be shelved under horror, historical fiction, or fantasy reliably, as Hekla’s Children defies a simple classification. It’s the story of a monster from another world intruding on ours and the lengths to which people will go, out of regret and finding closure.
Hekla’s Children (Titan Books)
With some quick Google research, I found that “Hekla” is the name of a volcano in Iceland. And wouldn’t you know it local mythology states that the people believed the active volcano was the gate to hell. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence author James Brogden picked this name for the title of his fourth novel as it draws so much from mythology, although not the Christian one. I wasn’t familiar with the British author’s previous novels, so I didn’t know what to expect going into it.
Most of the book is told with teacher Nathan Brook as the main character. On a outdoor education trip, students are to hike in groups through Sutton Park, a large forest reservation, accompanied by teachers. Nathan is the chaperone for one group, but he’s less worried about anything happening to them on the hike, than about Sue, an engaged teacher he is having an affair with. Just like that, Brook has begun to set the stage for a small decision that will shape the rest of Brook’s life.
Everything goes normally enough, as we are introduced to the four students and their personalities, until Nathan decides to take a small shortcut and meet up with the group ahead on the trail–the impetus being that Sue is at a checkpoint ahead, and it would buy him some time to talk to her. When he next sees the kids coming through the woods, and disappearing behind some trees on a bend in the road, he faintly overhears some of their conversation. When they don’t continue up the trail to meet him, he senses something is wrong and goes to where he thinks he heard their voices. The last he sees of the kids, they are in the distance, walking in a line, wordlessly deeper into the woods.
It’s a scene that hooked me, as you could feel tension building as soon as the students and teacher were separated. I began to put together what I thought would happen next. The teacher would come under suspicion, blamed by parents and police, he’d begin to do research, find out about others who had gone missing, no one believes him, etc. Technically I got the first bit right, but these details are told in the past tense as the story jumps ahead in time 10 years to the remains of a body being found in the woods. It was the last time I was close to being right, as the story continued to surprise me with the directions it took.
There is definitely horror, as the “Afaugh,” a monster from the world of “Un,” that has been barred from entering ours, escapes and begins a terrifying spree across the city. The more unexpected turn is the fantastical element of the story, involving a fair amount of world building, that finds Nathan in a dreamscape of a world searching for answers about the children. There is also a change in focus on who the main character of the story is at one point. By the conclusion I realized the book didn’t resemble anything close to what I expected, but in a good way.
The author does a great job building the characters of the story. None of them seem too black or white, and he even garners sympathy for one character that would seem unlikely. Brogden must have done a fair bit of research, as many of the scenes, such as the bronze age-like setting of the prologue, were filled with authentic sounding detail. It’s with no small amount of skill that he peppers his knowledge throughout different scenes without making them seem dull or list-like. The only part that could have been a less bit dense for me was the world-building, as there were so many plot points going on, that at times it seemed to slow the pace.
Is It Good?
This book was quite different than my preconceived notions, which made it seem very fresh and unique. There are a lot of balls in the air as the story moves to the middle of the book, but Brogden makes everything fit and have a purpose. There are some good twists and surprises and it’s unlikely many people will see where the book is headed. Because so much of the story relates to its settings, I’ve been rather vague with the details after the first portion of the book, as I don’t want to spoil it. Though not a straight horror story, there are certainly horrific elements, such as the Afaugh forcing its way down someone’s throat. However, the real hook is the inventiveness of the storyline and how relatable its characters are. I recommend this book to anyone looking for something different in the horror/fantasy genres, and although it’s my first Brogdon book, it made me eager to read his earlier novels since I enjoyed this so much.