Winterset Hollow: Jonathan Edward Durham
Reviewed By Steve Stred
For me, personally, the hardest part of writing any review of a book is when that piece of fiction moves you in ways that you never expected and you try and do the book justice. To tell people reading this why you absolutely loved something so much, that they need to drop everything and read it immediately, while also remaining as spoiler-free as possible.
Growing up, I sought out and consumed a steady diet of ‘dark-fantastical.’ Movies that had those fantasy elements, but also the hero’s quest, of trying to overcome the longest of odds to survive and defeat evil. I also loved reading the fairy tale stories, but also the anthropomorphised tales. I grew up during the perfect time period where there was a lot of this to watch and read. Think ‘Watership Down,’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia,’ ‘Legend,’ ‘Labyrinth,’ ‘The Dark Crystal,’ ‘The Last Unicorn,’ ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ‘The Wind In The Willows,’ ‘Willow,’ and so, so many more. The first two movies I ever saw in theatres was a double feature; ‘The Land Before Time’ and ‘The Great Land of Small.’
The one piece that I continually return to, time and time again, is ‘The Neverending Story.’ Both the movie and the book hold special places for me, to the extent that my son is named after the amulet within the story – Auryn.
All of this is to say, that when ‘Winterset Hollow’ was offered for review, I took in that gorgeous cover, read the synopsis and something was stirred. I knew I was in for a truly stunning debut novel. I wanted to experience it and find out just what Jonathan Edward Durham had created.
What I liked: The story centres around three friends – Eamon, Caroline and Mark who decide to finally take a trip to the island where Eamon and Caroline’s favorite book was written. ‘Winterset Hollow’ (the book within the book) tells the story of rabbit, fox, frog, and bear on Barley Day, the annual feast day tradition. To Eamon and Caroline, the book is so much more. For Eamon, it is a book that helped him as a child. For Caroline, it is a connection to her mother who has passed away.
With how popular the book is around the world, when they arrive to await the ferry to take them from the mainland to the island, they find a number of other ‘Winterset’ fans and so they all enjoy each other’s company and the connection they have to this piece of fiction.
Jonathan does a fantastic job of setting up the arrival to the island and really brings this book within a book alive. In fact, he has written an almost complete book within a book, which itself was a marvel. I personally could handle a separate companion release of this fairy tale, it is so well done.
But of course, to the trio, the book is just that – a book. And so after they trespass onto the gated property and discover a light on in the house, Edward Durham turns this book upside down. The characters are real. They exist and they still live on the island and in the house.
The initial opening scenes where Eamon and Caroline discover that Runny the Rabbit and Finn the Fox are real living creatures was pure delight. I would imagine it would be the same feeling as a five-year-old meeting a Disney character at the theme park. The relationship between rabbit and frog was stellar, stellar and their banter was one of the absolute highlights of the book for me. Their story arc was tragic and beautiful and at the end made me cry my eyes out. The final scene that Jonathan dedicated to their characters was so perfect that I wish I could describe it for you, but instead, I’ll beg you to read this book just for that moment alone.
But alas, this is a dark fiction/horror novel, and the moment it turns was spot-on perfect. We see Bing the Bear grow agitated as he watches his cartoons and we see Finn the Fox begin to show his anger towards the author of the novel that brought the people there for Barley Day, as well as his anger towards the novel itself and his portrayal. And as the reality of what is about to happen next sinks in, Eamon asks Runny what happens next, to which Runny replies ” You run, Eamon. You run.”
From that point on this book becomes a stunning survival piece, where the island is also their prison and as they get picked off one by one by the animals, Eamon, Caroline and Mark suffer injury and deep wounds, but also uncover the awful truths of the novel and the secrets on the island itself.
Never once does Edward Durham let up in this novel and the interspersed pieces of the ‘Winterset Hollow’ book within a book work so well to highlight certain moments or to offer dark foreshadowing for what our trio is about to face. And the introduction and visits by Olivia the Owl were fantastic. That was a great character that really strengthened Eamon’s back story.
This was so well done and so cinematic in scope that I could’ve sworn I was watching it on the big screen while reading.
What I didn’t like: While I absolutely loved this book, I would say the one part that wasn’t as impactful was the secondary human characters. Because we get introduced to them so briefly and have an idea of who they are, when the carnage and hunt begins, I didn’t really have any vested interest in if they survived or not.
Why you should buy this: I mean, if my earlier comments didn’t grab you, I don’t know how else I can tell you how amazing this book is! This made me squirm with nervousness and fright, had me on the seat of the chair at moments and made me bawl my eyes out several times. This book is not only a book that I enjoyed reading, but it’s easily cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite books and I’ll be getting a physical copy to treasure and a physical copy to be able to share this stunning story with my son when he’s old enough.
Jonathan Edward Durham has truly crafted a classic story, a fresh offering that connected me to my youth while also speaking to where I am currently as a reader and I can’t thank him enough. This book gets the highest recommendation from myself to you, if you’re reading this and honestly, I hope this book finds a home on your shelf so that you can enjoy this for years and years to come.
A stellar and phenomenal debut. Thank you, Jonathan, for reminding me of why I’ve always loved these types of stories and why they hold such a place in my heart.
Everyone has wanted their favorite book to be real, if only for a moment. Everyone has wished to meet their favorite characters, if only for a day. But be careful in that wish, for even a history laid in ink can be repaid in flesh and blood, and reality is far deadlier than fiction . . . especially on Addington Isle.
Winterset Hollow follows a group of friends to the place that inspired their favorite book—a timeless tale about a tribe of animals preparing for their yearly end-of-summer festival. But after a series of shocking discoveries, they find that much of what the world believes to be fiction is actually fact, and that the truth behind their beloved story is darker and more dangerous than they ever imagined. It’s Barley Day . . . and you’re invited to the hunt.
Winterset Hollow is as thrilling as it is terrifying and as smart as it is surprising. A uniquely original story filled with properly unexpected twists and turns, Winterset Hollow delivers complex, indelible characters and pulse- pounding action as it storms toward an unforgettable climax that will leave you reeling. How do you celebrate Barley Day? You run, friend. You run.
Steve Stred is the author of a number of novels, novellas and collections. He has appeared in anthologies with some of Horror’s heaviest hitters.
He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with his wife, son and their dog OJ.
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