Book Review: The Hollow Tree by James Brogden
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: Horror, Paranormal
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Titan Books (March 6, 2018)
Length: 483 pages
I love horror novels based on urban legends, though in the case of The Hollow Tree, I only found out that it was inspired by a local myth in the author’s hometown after I finished the book. In his afterword, James Brogden describes the real life 1944 discovery of a woman’s skeleton inside the trunk of a hollow elm in Hagley Wood, Worchestershire, England. Her real identity was never discovered—and neither were her murderer’s—before the remains mysteriously went missing, and subsequently, a graffiti message appearing on a nearby wall reading “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm” soon solidified the legend behind the investigation. Fascinated, I went to do some more reading on the topic, and was chilled by what I found out. Unsolved crimes and mysteries tend to have that effect on me, and when it comes to the details behind “Wych Elm Bella”, I could certainly understand why the case would be a treasure trove of ideas for a horror writer.
Brogden, however, has created something truly vast and impressive out of Bella in the Wych Elm urban legend, drawing heavily on its basis as well as a lot of the rumors and theories surrounding it. The protagonist of The Hollow Tree is Rachel Cooper, a young woman whose life is suddenly shattered when she loses her hand in a traumatic boating accident. Fighting hard to remain optimistic through her recovery and therapy, she soon learns to adapt with living with only one hand, as well as how to deal with the symptoms related to limb loss such as phantom pain. But unfortunately, there is little she can do about the nightmares. In her dreams, she keeps seeing vivid images of a hollow tree, with a hand reaching out to her from it, as if begging for help. Soon, the visions get so bad that Rachel is starting to experience delusions even during her waking hours. Her missing hand also keeps bothering her, feeling so present and alive, experiencing all kinds of sensations that should not be possible. In a way, it almost feels like the hand is still there, but in another world…
For the purposes of this novel, the “Bella in the Wych Elm” legend has been changed to “Mary in the Hollow Oak”, though a lot of its other story elements have remained the same. I don’t really want to elaborate on how Rachel’s role relates to Mary’s fate in case I accidentally reveal too much, but suffice to say, the two women’s lives will be forever entwined because of Rachel’s connection to that “other place”.
To me, The Hollow Tree feels very much like a story told in several distinct parts. The first third of the book is a very good character study of Rachel. We’re along for the ride when she and her husband Tom go on that fateful boating trip that turns both their lives upside down, and the accident is as terrible as you would expect. I really felt for Rachel, who now must face her new reality of living without her left hand, but her determination and courageous attitude soon endeared me to her. I admired her a lot for her optimism, but at the same time, her struggles were portrayed realistically. Sometimes, memories of the incident would drag Rachel into a dark place, but those are also the moments in which her character felt the most genuine, with her true nature shining through as she resolutely refuses to wallow in her self-pity or to blame anyone for her problems. In fact, much of the suspense in this book stems from the fact that Rachel is so independent, always opting to tackle conflicts head on by herself, and that defiant streak often leaves her alone in many frightening situations.
For the rest of the book, however, my feelings were a bit more mixed. Sometimes, when too much is revealed too early on or all at once, a story can lose much of its mystique, and I think this is what happened here. Rachel’s nightmares and visions kept me intrigued for much of the first third; the ambiguity made me wonder if there was truly a supernatural explanation for all of the things she was seeing and dreaming, or perhaps they were simply the delusions of the protagonist’s stressed mind. So when all was revealed in the second third, it almost felt like the suspense was shattered too soon. In a way, it was like being able to see behind a magician’s tricks, removing all sense of wonder and mystery. While there was still plenty of action and danger to follow, sadly the story never quite managed to regain its foreboding atmosphere and eeriness, becoming a lot more like a straightforward paranormal thriller. Since I had been expecting a lot more horror, this made me feel slightly disappointed.
As a result, the later parts of the book took me a lot longer to read, because I just didn’t feel as invested in those sections of the story as I did in the first third. However, I won’t deny I found the ideas behind the novel intriguing, and I still loved the fact that it was inspired by a such a fascinating urban legend. While it’s true that the book could have been a lot more atmospheric and disturbing, ultimately I think The Hollow Tree would make a pretty good choice for fans of paranormal suspense and light horror.
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