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by PD Alleva

Rating: ****

Recently promoted to Detective and with his wife expecting, life is good for John Ashton. His first case involves a missing child and a visit to Bellevue’s psychiatric facility to meet with socialite and sculptress, Alena Francon, the only witness to the little girl’s disappearance. When she takes John into her confidence, explaining that a statue she created is possessed by a diabolical entity, he dismisses her story as the ravings of a madwoman…

Golem is an absorbing horror that is truly terrifying in places and draws on different elements of myth and legend, which are sprinkled with a deconstructed dash of Rosemary’s Baby, and a subversive sprinkle of Pygmalion. It’s a gruesome cauldron of skin-crawling psychological horror.

Indeed, the novel comfortably straddles several sub-genres and utilizes a number of satisfyingly familiar horror ingredients. However, these are not just thrown in the narrative mix but purposefully placed, and innovatively applied to the story.

The novel is split into three parts and is set in the late 1940s/early 50s. This mid-century setting never over-shadows but is nicely complementary to the tale, bathing the action in slightly sepia, shadowy tones. Further, the lack of modern communication serves to ratchet up the fear levels for both characters and readers alike.

The story is told from the perspectives of John Ashton, Alena Francon, and an acquaintance of Alena’s, Annette Flemming.

Ashton has vulnerabilities and the reader is given a heavy dose of foreshadowing during his chapters, in some areas, you feel like shouting at the prose as he completely misreads the obvious, but it’s adept at keeping the pages turning.

Annette is an acquaintance of Alena’s and I found her a deeply unsettling character who could definitely inhabit her own novel. She also has personal issues, some immediately discernible, others bubbling under the surface. The scenes with her were tense, atmospheric, and thickly ominous.

They also had a very visual quality, especially the opening Halloween chapter, which also added to the reader’s creeping sense of dread. Throughout Golem, Alleva’s writing lends an intense appeal to visualization achieved by the use of sharp, physical detailing, and heightened spatial awareness through the various characters’ observations and emotions.

Alena’s story is gripping, especially in the beginning. Her meeting with Maleva, the Gypsy, could have veered into trope but it was brilliantly executed. Palpably weighted with foreboding, ancient evil, and the downright macabre, it skilfully draws the reader layer by layer into its dark, demonic world.

Notwithstanding, as Golem slowly yet steadily comes to life beneath Alena’s hand, the chapters are strangely beautiful and quite moving. However, that changes when Alena’s socialite friends visit. Things take a distinctly visceral turn as Golem spends more time in the basement and serves a pate that, for many, would be an acquired taste.

From here on, Golem descends into a nightmarish rabbit hole of ritualistic, primal malevolence which is as appalling as it is compelling. My only critique would be that I found Alena’s story became a little overlong towards the end which slightly mitigated the impact of Golem’s fiendish machinations.

But, overall, an excellent horror-thriller in the chillingly awful tradition of Barker, King, Koontz, et al. Highly recommended.

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