I have been aware of US author D. Melhoff for some time now, with his debut adult novel Come Little Children being recommended to me on several occasions. So in typical fashion, it was his second novel I decided to read first. After all, who could resist a story that promised murder that drew on the ‘grisly, uncensored details of history’s most famous fairy tales‘?
“Every fairy tale has a dark side…”
A remote summer camp becomes a lurid crime scene when the bodies of two teenagers are found in a bloody, real-life rendering of a classic Grimm’s fairy tale. Trapped in the wilderness, the remaining counselors must follow a trail of dark children’s fables to outwit a psychopath and save the dwindling survivors before falling prey to their own gruesome endings.
Camp Crownheart, is a fairy tale themed summer camp for troubled children. Counselors with a mixture of experience have arrived a day before the camp opens, to get to know each other and to understand how the camp works and it’s rules. The introductions have this old school vibe, the counselors are all about 19 years old, there is the obvious mix of male, female, race and class. Their focus is more on the first night party with the promise of sex and drugs and not learning how to keep the next busload of kids safe. The men are obviously mostly looking for a good time, and it seems a lot of the girls are thinking the same. Crownheart, in my mind’s eye is looking and feeling like Friday The 13’s Camp Crystal, its in woodland, by a lake, you have a bunch of sexually active, drug taking, beer swilling teenagers, you know murder is obviously on the agenda. I’m a huge fan of the 80’s slasher genre, so the stereo-typical characters in a familiar horror setting didn’t bother me at all. The writing is fast paced, with a style that initially keeps me interested, Melhoff had me in his pocket, I’m now sitting here waiting for the mayhem to start. With the story about to kick off in earnest, the author references something modern, I found that jarring. Hang on, I thought this was the 80’s! This was working perfectly as an homage, everything in my head was ready for ’85. Attitudes were rightly or wrongly different 30 years ago, now those somewhat sleazy comments made about the girls seemed wrong, the drug references move from the classic movie stoner to something darker, it was a shift in tone I didn’t appreciate.
I don’t want to spoil anything about this book, but again in classic 80’s slasher style, the first deaths are inexplicably dismissed, the camp is kept open, as closing would ‘hurt the hundreds of kids that are due to arrive’. The indifference to these deaths from all parties seems odd, it makes a large proportion of the characters unlikable. As the book progresses and more deaths occur, characters are still acting oddly, with one lead still maintaining his workout routine, even though mayhem is going on around him. Finding themselves trapped in a building, conversations are occasionally light and playful, almost flirtatious. When counselors of the opposite sex are alone together, you expect them to start ripping each others clothes off, there is an omnipresent air of sexual tension, which is bewildering as one such scene occurs in a room often tainted by the smell of rotting flesh! At one point, the announcement of the deaths of two counselors is made in such a flippant way, it’s hardly surprising no-one reacts! I was finding myself being pulled out of the story due to the unbelievable way some of these people were behaving. This was not helped by a middle section that was incredibly tough to get through, a lot of people were running about, letting off fireworks, flirting, running into woods alone, avoiding death, working out, flirting, playing games, avoiding death, flirting and for two of the leads, they developed sleuthing skills to make Sherlock Holmes jealous! Add to that some annoyingly convenient plotting the transition to the last act was complete.
Had this book been set in the 80’s, it would have been an enjoyable novel with nods to classic horror tropes. Setting this book in modern times, I struggled to feel much for anyone. Behaviour that would have stood out as odd even in Friday The 13th stands out as baffling in 2016, the characters were all acting like exaggerated versions of their 80’s slasher counterparts. The premise for deaths based on the original Grimm fairy tales was a good one, but we mostly discover the aftermath and, for me, there is no suspense in that. When Melhoff actually has a victim trapped and is cranking up the tension it works, sadly there was not enough of this. It’s difficult to have an emotional response to the death of a character who’s only presence in the book was a couple of lines of text 50 pages earlier.
A flawed novel sadly, the main problem, setting aside, once you stop caring about the characters, especially the leads, then it’s never going to be a fairy tale ending.
Star Rating (out of 5): 2**
Grimm Woods is published by Bellwoods Publishing
The official D. Melhoff website is found here