REVIEW: Whispers In The Dark by Laurel Hightower
I’ve been lucky enough to read some incredible books this year: some indie, some small press and some Big 5, from writers as new (to me) as V. Castro and Kev Harrison and as firmly established as Stephen King and Blake Crouch.
Generally, if I’m reading or writing fiction, my genres of choice are horror and crime. So it’s a further stroke of luck that Whispers In The Dark is both: a Wittgensteinian rabbit-duck of a novel that could be understood, depending on how you look at it, as either crime-fic with supernatural elements, or a horror story that borrows some of the structural principles of a really good crime thriller.
However you see it, though - as horror-inflected crime, or crime-inflected horror - Whispers is a hell of a read, and Laurel Hightower is a hell of a writer. I was genuinely astonished to learn this was her first novel.
Stylistically, her prose has the pace and staccato beat - not to say the confidence in its subject-matter - of some of the best-known voices in American crime lit; supernatural elements notwithstanding, you could easily mistake Whispers for a Karin Slaughter, a Thomas Harris or a Jeffrey Deaver on first reading. (I was also reminded in parts, perhaps inevitably given the novel’s melding of crime and horror elements, of some sections of Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters). As the book’s paratextual material suggests, Laurel Hightower is a woman who does her research, and it shows in every one of her nods to US legal practice, SWAT protocol and departmental hierarchy - nods, I should add, that she integrates seamlessly into Whispers’ primary narrative with the assurance of a thirty-year writing-veteran of the police-procedural.
The content of Whispers is also pretty special.
Its characters are complicated, three-dimensional and wholly believable even where their motivations ought to require serious suspension of disbelief: not just Rose, Whispers’ key protagonist, but all the members of her wide extended family, blood and logical.
(As a sidebar: the warm, normalised representations of less-traditional-but-no-less-loving-for-it family relationships were a welcome inclusion for this lesbian mother, and I loved them).
And the scares... the scares are pretty fucking scary.
The central premise is in itself profoundly disquieting. But some of the set-pieces illustrating that premise - the breadcrumbs the author drops to illuminate Rose’s predicament and foreshadow what’s to come - are terrifying. I’m disinclined to spoil the action for anyone who’s yet to read the book (and if you haven’t: please do, right away), but I’ll say this: if The Shining ever put you off using a hotel bathroom, then there’s a good chance Whispers will nudge you away from going down to the basement the next time the power goes out.
There’s also an unpredictability to the story that I found particularly satisfying. When you read a lot of genre fic (especially horror and crime), you begin to tune in to its ebbs and flows; part of the pleasure of reading genre, surely, is the knowledge of those ebbs and flows, the almost-certainty of them, and the delight taken as a reader in any minor deviation from the anticipated rhythm. But because Whispers plays so freely (and so perfectly) with the conventions of both horror and crime, you’re never quite sure where it’s taking you. All you can do is trust you’re going somewhere good, and enjoy the sights along the way, because Laurel Hightower - like the best crime writers - understands the value of keeping you guessing; of packing every chapter, every page, with a twist or an insight or a revelation that propels you forward to the next and demands that you keep on reading until you get to the end.
(On the subject of narrative content and construction: I was also a fan of the unabashedly feminist bent to the story. And if you weren't, then I’d politely suggest, to paraphrase the ever-awesome Well Read Beard, that you’re reading the wrong blog).
Truthfully, I could rhapsodise about this book all day. It’s one of the best I’ve read all year, an easy Top 5. So: next stop, Crossroads. And everything else Laurel Hightower’s ever published.
See you there?