To begin with, I’d like to open with the old expectations versus reality discussion, in which I admit frankly that the flavour of the book had leanings towards folk horror and I was thoroughly expecting some good old fashioned slaughter of virgins to feed the fertility deities. May Queens. Sexy times. PG-13 nudity. Isolated backwater community. Pagan overtones. Yeah. Totally. Just point me to the wicker man and let’s get this show on the road.
I expected psychological horror coupled with gothic tropes of isolation, madness, and a mass slaughter with an unidentified killer to add a smidge of whodunnit.
Welp. I was mostly wrong, but I got the whodunnit and psychological thriller bits right. Also the part about nookie.
I got a copy of The May Queen Murders by Sarah Jude as a pre-order from Amazon. There had been quite a bit of talk about the book for a few months leading up to its release, and since YA horror titles are few and far between I’ll read whatever I can get my hands on. I was utterly wrong about the folk horror part. Completely. (I’ve seen reviews where people have talked about the book’s potential without clarifying what they mean: for me, the absence of further exploration of the community’s traditions and the May Queen celebrations could qualify. It’s the right set up for it, but I don’t know if it’d prompt me to add another star if it had gone in that direction either. Conversely, the folklore that dictates the characters’ behaviour and parental cautionary tales could be informed by something that was supernatural in origin too. The May Queen Murders breaks with convention in both respects, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just surprising.)
Folk Horror: Folk horror is a sub-genre of horror fiction (or of Occult fiction in WorldCat Genre terms) characterised by reference to European, pagan traditions. Stories typically involve standing stone circles, earthworks, elaborate rituals or nature deities.
The May Queen Murders is not folk horror. There was no wicker man, and no virgin sacrifices, much to my dismay. Oh well. (Naturally I would assume that when you combine rural communities with multiple violent deaths, there’s something afoot, but sometimes an author takes things totally in the opposite direction to break with convention.)
There is a smattering of folklore which dictates the behaviour and choices made by the characters, and for the most part they play it safe and abide the rules: Stay on the roads. Don’t enter the woods. Never go out at night.
As a rule of thumb, nothing interesting happens in a horror novel when you play it safe, and Jude does anything but: insert Heather. More on her in a second.
The short version: the book is good. It’s redeeming qualities include pure, visceral description and an unflinching aggressive approach to killing its darlings, making the characters hurt, and drawing out reader sympathy. There’s a lot of death. So much so that you can smell it:
I began reading the hardcover edition on a bus on my way in to work. It was early. I was sleep-deprived. I was right before my period which means certain things wig me out more than they would normally. After the very first page I had to put my head between my knees while on that bus and stay there until I felt like I wasn’t going to pass out. Description? Super convincing. Gore? Lots of it.
Yes, body horror makes me want to faint. Body horror has made me faint before.
But this is the first page we’re talking about. Way to open up a book strong. I was actually a little squeamish following that initial exposure, but what I can tell you is that you acclimate to the viscera and it’s more manageable. Gross, but manageable. And there’s lots of it.
Does gore make for good horror fiction? Ordinarily, I’d say no, but it works for The May Queen Murders.
Where I struggled with it was in respects to the Ivy/Heather dynamic. I wanted to identify with Heather — the supporting character to Ivy — because she flouts convention, she breaks the rules, she has a pack of secrets, and she’s interesting. She’s the “bad girl” of Rowan’s Glen, and lordy, I love me some against-the-grain characters.
Ivy, as a protagonist, does demonstrate growth through her character arc, but I couldn’t identify with her: she begins as a co-dependent little sister type and ends up much stronger for the trauma, but on whole was too soft. Too timid. Too… not the character I want to root for.
Heather is to Ivy is what a hurricane is to a drizzle, so of course Heather has to die.
On the up side, Ivy spends the rest of the book hunting down Heather’s killer, and that initiative is something I can appreciate inasmuch as it informs who Ivy becomes. And yes, there are sexy times and a hot love interest too. Doesn’t hurt.
Lots of surprises towards the end, which made for an interesting read that gathered steam through the three-quarter mark through the finish. A good old fashioned hack and slash with lots of death, but less the folk horror aspects I was expecting. It does carry gothic tints of isolation and madness, though, and that I can always appreciate.
The May Queen Murders by Sarah JudeThe May Queen Murders by Sarah Jude
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on May 3rd 2016
Check it out: Goodreads
Stay on the roads. Don’t enter the woods. Never go out at night.
Those are the rules in Rowan’s Glen, a remote farming community in the Missouri Ozarks where Ivy Templeton’s family has lived for centuries. It’s an old-fashioned way of life, full of superstition and traditions, and sixteen-year-old Ivy loves it. The other kids at school may think the Glen kids are weird, but Ivy doesn’t care—she has her cousin Heather as her best friend. The two girls share everything with each other—or so Ivy thinks. When Heather goes missing after a May Day celebration, Ivy discovers that both her best friend and her beloved hometown are as full of secrets as the woods that surround them.Buy on Amazon