An inventive, supernatural thriller that gives a modern take on an old Urban Legend, that’s a satisfying and well paced read.
Titan Books’ new release of the James Brogden novel The Hollow Tree has just been released. The Hollow Tree is a reimagining of an English legend in which the remains of a woman are found in a hollowed elm tree, and the myths that it gave birth to as people tried to explain who the woman was and how she came to be there. In the present day, Rachel Cooper is involved in a accident in which she loses her hand. However, what could be dismissed as phantom sensations in her missing hand soon prove to be something supernatural. Not only can Rachel feel and touch things in another place, she finds she can bring them back into our world — but not without consequences. What happens when she takes the hand of the woman who was trapped in the tree?
I had read Brogden’s previous book, Hekla’s Children, and quite liked my first outing with the author. In a way his books remind me of Dan Simmons, who has used historical events to base his supernatural tales in, while Brogden gives a fantastical working-over to myths and folklore. Although I was unaware of the legend “Bella in the Witch Elm”, using it as a tentpole perhaps led to the situations and settings feeling more grounded. You’re not immediately asked to believe or invest in a supernatural invention, so the introduction of those elements later in the book add to the suspense.
The book moves at a brisk pace and the author does a good job of building to the more climactic elements that Rachel has to deal with, letting the reader discover the strangeness of her new condition without showing exactly where he’s taking you. Brogden has an inventive imagination and I especially liked the “tit-for-tat” aspect of Rachel’s condition. It kept you guessing what the price would be for interfering with the other world her hand occupied. As the story progresses and the more supernatural elements come into play, the book really comes into its own. The explanation for the other world, or “umbra” as termed in the story, was unique enough that it didn’t feel derivative or comparable to other horror or fantasy works. So too, the way Brogden explores the background of the woman in the tree — whether she was a witch, prostitute or Nazi (all of which had been rumored by the actual legend), all seem plausible and the way he ties them together is quite clever.
It took me a while to get into the character of Rachel, and now that the book is over, I’m not sure if I care about her fate because I liked or empathized with her, or because I spent so much time with her. She’s sympathetic because of her injury, but I just didn’t connect with her personality and didn’t particularly find her that likable at first. Her inner monologue speaks of her doubt and dismay at living with her disability, but in almost every action she is shown to be strong willed and independent. She’s in a sensitive position because of her injury, so the times she seems short tempered and snaps at people like her doctor, her husband Tom and her mother, would be understandable, but time and again her actions show how focused and strong she is, so these episodes came off much harsher to me than was probably intended. The two components didn’t jive. Inwardly she balks at the thought of rehab with the tough as nails therapist, but takes it head on and doesn’t miss a beat when she actually starts. She also modifies her car and learns how to drive a straight shift, without even mentioning it to her husband, before she’s zooming him around traffic circles. I don’t think she needs his approval, but you do tend to talk to people you live with and her nonchalant attitude about it, while he’s freaking out as she almost runs over someone, isn’t very endearing.
Her husband, Tom, is unfortunately also paper thin, as he tries admirably to act like her loss doesn’t bother him for about 2 pages, then immediately becomes an oaf who pressures her into having kids, but doesn’t know how to deal with her now that she has one fewer hand. Fortunately, some of the other supporting characters, such as Rachel’s mom, who tries to kill her with kindness, is spot on and Rachel’s relationship and interactions with Tom’s family was very realistic.
Is It Good?
I would definitely recommend The Hollow Tree, foremost because of how different it feels than everything else I’ve read lately in horror or fantasy genre. Brogden is impressive in his creations and inventing supernatural lore. Because of this, the reader can never quite see around the curve as to what is coming next. With tight pacing and strong ending, it’s one of the best horror/fantasy novels I’ve read this year.