Book Review: Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Paranormal, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Del Rey (April 10, 2018)
Length: 384 pages
A solid 3.5 star read. Had I been in the right mood, my feelings towards Unbury Carol might have been even more positive, but I had a hard time finding my footing when it came to this book, and I think its peculiar mix of genre elements might have been a contributing factor.
At the center of this story is a woman named Carol Evers, a woman with a very strange condition. Ever since she was a little girl, she has suffered from spells that send her collapsing into a coma-like state, except these comas are virtually indistinguishable from death and they can last for days. During her visits to Howltown—the name young Carol gave to these eerie episodes—she would be awake and aware inside her mind, despite her physical body lying inert. It is her deepest, darkest secret that only a few people other than Carol herself know the truth about, and after the deaths of her mother Hattie and her good friend John Bowie, only two remained. One was her husband, Dwight, an ambitious and conniving man who married Carol for her family’s fortune, and the second person was James Moxie, an old flame of Carol’s who went on to become one of the land’s most notorious outlaws.
However, since the last time Carol saw Moxie was more than twenty years ago, she begins to grow worried that should she lapse into another one of her death-like comas, only Dwight would know the truth of what was really happening to her. Her concerns came a bit too late though, as in fact her husband had been waiting patiently all these years for this exact moment. The next time Carol falls into Howltown, that’s when Dwight decides to strike, carrying out his plot to declare her dead and bury her as quickly as possible, even knowing full well she would be alive. Only through sheer luck does James Moxie manage to catch word of the impending funeral, and knowing what he does about Carol’s condition, it’s a race against time to save his lost love from a terrible fate.
I should have been all over this one: a paranormal Western featuring an outlaw Prince Charming who rides gallantly forth to rescue his Sleeping Beauty? But it actually took several false starts before I was drawn into the story, which opens with a focus on Carol but then over time gradually shifts to focus more on Moxie. The first quarter of the book was also bogged down by abstract descriptions of Howltown, convenient and not-too-convincing plot points, and hasty introductions to the characters that left me feeling neither here nor there about them. On top of this, there were the many flashbacks to contend with, and these would appear erratically throughout the narrative. With Josh Malerman at the helm, I also expected this to be a horror novel, but it’s really not. Instead, it feels more like a mix of dark fantasy combined with the supernatural set in a vaguely historical context with a bit of a Western flavor, but because all of this is so haphazardly thrown together in the intro, I had a tough time pinning down the book’s tone and picturing the setting—at least in the beginning.
Fortunately, things improve once we get into the meat of the story, especially with James Moxie’s chapters coming to the forefront. A lot of important information is also revealed in the later flashback sections, filling in gaps in the characters’ personalities and motivations. There’s also the added factor of Smoke, a shadowy assassin dispatched to stop Moxie before he can reach Carol, as well as the demon-like antagonist known as Rot, who haunts our protagonists and pulls the strings from behind the scenes. Just as Moxie’s chapters held more action and agency than Carol’s, making him a lot more interesting to read about, Smoke and Rot were also more effective villains than Dwight, increasing the plot’s intensity once they entered the picture and the race against the clock got under way.
In the end, it’s Moxie’s adventures on “The Trail” that saved this book for me. Between the cat-and-mouse chase between him and Smoke and the fascinating personalities he meets while on his journey, Unbury Carol finally became something more than just a story about saving a damsel in distress. A part of me still wishes that Malerman had given the book’s titular character a little more power to influence the plot, but nonetheless I became invested in the story once I accepted the new direction.
In truth, Unbury Carol is a lot more than a Weird Western meets a twisted fairytale retelling, but I guess I’ll just go with that for lack of a better description. The story took its time getting off the ground, but personally speaking, sticking with it was an investment that paid off in the end. It certainly hasn’t put me off from reading more of Josh Malerman’s work, and I look forward to checking out more of his books in the future.