Books

Review: Haunting tale shows power in storytelling

This Halloween, many of us are looking for a good scare. But that bone-chilling, up-all-night fear comes not from corn mazes and haunted houses but from stories: well-worn fables about jilted lovers or murdered children grounded in just enough reality to be convincing. Author Alyson Hagy, who was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains, understands the power of folklore, and her latest novel, “Scribe,” takes inspiration from regional myths, family legends and narratives rooted in indigenous cultures. The result is a decidedly American horror story about greed, identity and unabashed optimism — a story just scary enough to be true.

In the aftermath of a brutal civil war and plague, “the world ... had become a gospel of disturbances,” says the narrator, a woman who scrapes out a meager living writing letters in exchange for rations. She lives alone in her family’s decaying farmhouse and shares her land with the Uninvited, a migrant group who believe the narrator’s dead sister to be a prophetic healer. But the narrator does not share her sister’s sympathies for the blighted and maintains a suspicious peace with the group and with local enforcer Billy Kingery, an arrangement that fails spectacularly when she agrees to write a letter for a mysterious stranger.

“Scribe” can easily be read in a night. The pages fly by, especially when the narrator’s allies reveal themselves to be untrue and she works “hard to stay ahead of the devil,” leaning on little more than her own virtues and pride. Nothing will stop her from delivering her letter to the crossroads: not ghosts who inhabit living bodies, or younger selves making themselves manifest, or a poisonous potion.

An expertly crafted tale about the transformative power of stories “Scribe” is filled with the sort of nefarious characters and double-crossings expected in the best legends, making “Scribe” a heralded novel for all seasons.

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