Darkness at Dhoon Woods
by Jack Lowe-Carbell
Victoria: Tellwell Talent, 2024
$24.99 / 9781779410979
Reviewed by Bill Paul
Jack Lowe-Carbell’s debut novel, Arlya, begins on the last day of grade eight classes at the Clifton Street Public School in a small Southern Ontario town. Thirteen year-old James and three close friends—Owen, Tommy, and Mike—are saying farewells to their teachers. James, the leader of the group, jumps on his father’s road bike and leads his friends out towards the towering pine trees near Cemetery Hill. As the boys leave the school grounds the reader is given a tour of the town.
The businesses and landmarks in Arlya seem familiar and recognizable. Two pizza joints. A pub. Two churches. Train tracks that divide the community of twenty-five houses. A mall with offices for a law office, doctor, and dentist. The dentist is a widow and an avid reader of horror fiction. All seems in order. Doesn’t it? But wait. The heat during the summer in Arlya is unbearable and the storms are otherworldly.
In other words, there are a few bad omens. James and his friends know the town’s history and are familiar with the superstitions and haunted tales that have been passed down over the years. The school friends frequently explore the dense, forested area known as the Dhoon Woods. The story around town is that at one time it was used for shelter by a coven of witches. On the day school finishes the four friends make their way to Dhoon Woods and stumble across a creepy wooden hut made of logs and branches.
Later that afternoon as they approach home, James and Owen stop on Lowell Street and recall the tale of a man named Denny Hodgson. After his death, locals swore they saw faces in the windows of his house and distorted shapes in the bushes.
Ghosts from the past are part of the living present in Arlya. Borrowing heavily from the supernatural-horror fiction genre found in countless books and movies, Vancouver’s Lowe-Carbell generates a scare a minute.
The suspense increases with the abduction of Bella Kettman, Owen’s younger sister, and the disappearance of Leah Sutton, James’ younger sister. The police are called in to begin the search for the girls. Detective Dylan Grey leads the investigation. It’s a worrying case. The reader empathizes with her fatigue and apprehension. Despite her competence and clear-headedness there are times when she feels overwhelmed by the towns’s malevolent forces.
Characters in the story are weighed down by personal demons. Most live in a “world of shadows.” Some person or thing is watching them, mapping their every step. Owen and Bella’s mother, Denise, has a reputation around town for her drinking and violent temper. Five years ago her husband died in a gruesome accident at work. Basements in people’s houses are notable for their “dirt and shame.” There’s a history of unexplained deaths. We learn that several years ago two young men committed suicide, one of them by hanging.
Vancouver’s Lowe-Carbell builds the story slowly and meticulously. We get to know Owen and his family and James and his parents (James’ parents are known in this tight-knit community for holding “countless sleepovers”). The author fills the story with many ominous details that carry the narrative forward. There is tension, conflict, and impending doom. We are drawn in by the mystery. Many questions need to be answered.
How did Bella and Leah disappear one day? What person or thing is responsible for terrorizing the community? Is the kidnapper a subhuman creature? Does it—do they—live in the Dhoon Woods, where the birds have stopped singing and where the tops of the trees appear as crooked teeth? At times the story suffers from an excess of alarming details and warning signs. In the end, too much calculated foreshadowing clutters the narrative and doesn’t add much depth to the story.
What is successful in the book is the author’s ability to convey the tingle and rattle of fear that stays in the minds of the mothers, fathers, and the children of Arlya. The anxiety of parents drained of energy, trying but failing to make sense of the disappearance of their only daughter. How neighbours living side by side in Arlya are swept up in the hysteria of the case of the two missing girls. How they throw reason out the window, rely on hearsay, and attach blame to any suspect.
Or how a person’s fear each day is transformed into a nightmare. Here’s the author’s description of Bella alone in her bedroom: “She couldn’t recall the whole dream that she had been having but the sinisterness of it lingered in her bones. Something was chasing her up the stairs.”
The spectre of evil is eventually uncovered in the small town of Arlya. But what about the next small town located on that dark, lonesome highway, several miles past Cemetery Hill and the Dhoon Woods?
East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and nonfiction. [Editor’s note: Bill Paul has reviewed books by Martin West, Dietrich Kalteis, Suzannah Showler, Curtis LeBlanc, Patrick deWitt, Barbara Fradkin, Dietrich Kalteis, Stan Rogal, Keath Fraser, and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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