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The Undertaker's Daughter

by John James Minster

Rating: ***

17-year-old, Anna Dingel has had a strange upbringing. A religious fanatic for a mother and an undertaker for a father. It’s no surprise she’s not particularly popular with her peers.

However, all that changes when she is given a makeover by her only friend, Naomi. Not only does she catch the eye of Timmy, the boy she likes, but she also receives unwelcome attention from the class bully, Bruce Barnette.

As events with Bruce spiral horribly out of control, Naomi and Anna decide to try an ancient Jewish curse in a desperate effort to ward off Bruce and his cronies…

Based mainly in Pennsylvania, there are some strong horror elements in The Undertaker’s Daughter. The opening set in the Dingel Funeral Home, with its ghoulish yet detached exploration of mortuary science, was chillingly interesting and atmospheric with the setting an obvious shoo-in for some grisly, supernatural activity.

The reader is then given little introductory tableaux of various characters who are a touch stereotypical, it has to be said. However, they work well, giving the reader clear villains and heroes. It’s fairly evident that these characters will all dovetail with each other and will be involved in whatever awfulness occurs.

Anna is quite complex. Still quite naïve and sheltered, mainly due to her mother’s behavior yet completely non-fazed and accepting of certain things, such as traveling to pick up a corpse, that a regular 17-year-old girl might find challenging. Plus, it’s always gratifying to read an ugly duckling transformation.

Her best friend, Naomi Silver, drives the majority of the action and appears more mature with a nice line in smart, witty retorts. Nonetheless, there is quite a contrast between their teenage shenanigans and Naomi’s deep, complex interest in ancient Jewish magic and artifacts.

Indeed, The Undertaker’s Daughter covers several elements whilst it builds toward the carnage. Issues of consent, and the destructive power of social media. Bullying, sexual assault, and the sharp, almost painful intensity of that first teenage relationship are all touched upon.

Religion figures strongly throughout the novel. Strictly observant of her Jewish faith, Naomi is subjected to antisemitism and Anna comes from a devoutly Christian background. Although her mother, Margie with her constant tub-thumping, hellfire, and damnation rhetoric borders on the deranged.

Nonetheless, Anna’s father, David, was nicely convincing and written with depth and credibility. Arch-nemesis Bruce evolves from a leery, predatory bully to someone who has the clear potential to be a violent rapist which only fortuitous circumstances prevent.

The scenes with Anna picking up bodies from the Texas Penitentiary and driving them back to the funeral home were wonderfully creepy. Personally, more could have been developed with the first body Anna collects.

However, when the body of Marcus Midlothian is picked up from the jail, the reader is aware this will probably be where the horror lies. And, indeed it is. The reader is given a clear, disturbing sense of this thing that has been reanimated as a Golem.

His modus operandi does not differ from the one that placed him on death row. It’s viscerally nasty and brutal in the extreme with distinctly deviant sexual overtones which ironically puts him on a par with Bruce, who gets what he deserves and then some.

Retribution is the order of the day and it gives the reader satisfaction as the characters it’s meted out to, are pretty base and their behavior has been vile, and that includes the mortuary trainee, Taylor.

Notwithstanding, Naomi and Anna appear emotionally disconnected from the gruesome punishment their resurrected cadaver unleashes and somewhat unconcerned as they embark on new lives.

The Undertaker’s Daughter is a macabre and supernatural mash-up with a side order of sweet teenage romance amongst the gore-laden, ritual-induced vengeance. Well worth a look for fans of hybrid horror thrillers.

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