Something wicked this way comes...
She thought she’d be safe in the country, but you can’t escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams repeatedly that someone is trying to kill her. Lis thinks she’s being paranoid - after all who would want to murder her? She doesn’t believe in the local legends of witchcraft. She doesn’t believe that anything bad will really happen to her. You never do, do you? Not until you’re alone in the woods, after dark - and a twig snaps... Hollow Pike - where witchcraft never sleeps. (Synopsis taken from Goodreads)
Hollow Pike actually has what I think is a slightly misleading presentation – the cover, the blurb, the general feel of the book scream supernatural to me. I was expecting more overt magic in the story. However, this is a case where my expectations were trumped by something better (and this coming from a person who really can’t get enough magic in my fiction). Instead of going for the typical supernatural or Craft-style witches-play-with-their-powers-until-they-unleash-a-darkness-they-can’t-control kind of plot, James Dawson has created a much subtler and creepy, and very enjoyable, story. This is closer to a kind of psychological slasher-horror than it is to the usual paranormal fiction I’ve read.
Magic is kept low-key, not obvious, but there, lurking in the background behind every scene. Lis is in danger from something more substantial – a stranger who watches her, who has murdered another girl with unnerving similarities to Lis, who has followed Lis and her friends, who creeps into her house at night. But Lis also dreams about the murder, about things she couldn’t possibly have known, and about her own death at the hands of the stranger. Could magic be involved after all? The combination of the dismal weather, the wild and slightly bleak scenery of the Yorkshire Dales town, the constant sense of something monstrous lurking close, and a general sense of unease throughout the whole story are all done so well that Hollow Pike is left with an unforgettable presence. The atmosphere reminded me of early series Supernatural when it had a very cool, frightening, and almost understated vibe, or of those early episodes of Buffy, where high-school drama plays out so well against a backdrop of menace and magic. The ending, and the reveal of who the murderer actually is, also felt very Buffy-esque.
I keep comparing this story to films and TV. That’s because Hollow Pike feels so connected to pop culture, working on it, drawing its own comparisons with little winks at the reader (try counting all the Mean Girls references), and using them to build the reader’s expectations. I enjoyed this, and it was a real bonus that many of the references were to things that I love! James Dawson seems to have done a brilliant job of capturing what it is to be a teenage girl, and I thought he handled the bullying in the story very well, showing that the bully likely has her/his own problems but that this makes it no less upsetting for their target, and then going on to demonstrate some positive ways in which the bullied person can attempt to address it.
One of the main things I appreciated about this book was how much focus the author put on the girls’ friendship. It was a great aspect of the story, and the relationship between the characters was very believable. I loved how Lis leaned on her friends before her new boyfriend when she needed help and support, and how she didn’t ignore or abandon them when she got the guy. Too many other books either entirely ignore friendship, or throw it out the window as soon as romance enters the picture. The guy himself, I wasn’t so enamoured with, and to be honest I think the book could have been just as strong without any romance at all. However, Lis and her friends were great characters, each so different but each supporting the others in some way. They were also a refreshingly diverse group, quite goofy at times, and often very funny. If this book has a moral, which I think it does, then it is this: it’s okay to be different, and you should be proud of who you are. That’s a moral I can happily get behind.
James Dawson writes tension, atmosphere and characters very well, and Hollow Pike is an extremely compelling read (I finished it in two sittings). The story itself might seem like a fairly standard slasher with a few twists on the theme, but it is done so well that it’s definitely worth the read. The ‘am I alone in the house’ scene is probably the creepiest of its kind that I’ve come across. Combining teenage drama with horror and suggestions of magic, this is a different book than the one I was expecting, but all the better for it.