As we approach “spooky season” I start to crave a good horror novel…one that I can read on the couch in the middle of the day with all the windows wide open and the sun shining, of course. It’s not my usual fare but a coworker recommended Seed to me, Anita Ahlborn’s debut novel set in rural Louisiana, and I was intrigued and in the mood for something supernatural and sinister. I got exactly what I wished for.
Jack Winters has been carrying the burden of something evil and hungry all his life – he’s even gotten the snarling grin that chases him tattooed onto his back – but despite years of silence and his attempts to build a life with his wife Aimee and their two daughters, despite rebuilding his terrified psyche from what he saw as a child and struggling financially in the present to make ends meet for his small family, he’s about to learn he hasn’t outrun anything. On a dark highway traveling home the Winters family experiences a freak accident that brings Jack face to face with his monster…and this time his youngest daughter, Charlie, sees it too. And Charlie begins to change almost immediately, following the Young Child in a Horror Story playbook: her health suffers, she starts acting out, she suddenly knows things she shouldn’t and starts sowing discord, and then violence. Aimee knows something is wrong, but not to what extent, as her youngest starts to stalk the household. And Jack is torn between finally telling Aimee everything about his past and losing her and the girls forever, and realizing that by the time it becomes vital, it’s too late…that it was always too late. Because while Jack remembers the demon that haunts him there’s a lot of details about his flight from his own childhood home that he doesn’t remember, and he is forced to start searching for the truth about his family, his parents and a single, similar escalation of terror they all experienced before in order to have a chance at saving Charlie in the present.
I really liked the Winters family and felt terribly for them, even if you logically know that it’s not always wise to get attached to the characters in horror stories.* Jack worked a tough, physical job for the family he adored and played in a band with his buddies on the side, and he genuinely reminded me of some of the boys that lived in my grandparents’ holler growing up, a little wild and extremely into metal bands and WWE but you knew they were good-hearted. I don’t see a lot of people like that reflected in literature, and I loved it, even if in this case they were being seriously terrorized. We experience some of the more terrifying scenes from Aimee’s perspective while alone with the kids, and I really felt for her as well: in addition to being terrified for/terrorized by her own daughters, we the readers know Jack had been trying hard to conceal his past from her, and so it was obvious to us that she was in no way equipped to deal with Charlie’s sudden, dramatic possession. Ahlborn peppers the book with creepiness, sliding brief scenes and horrifying lines from Charlie into the constant narrative of Jack’s mounting dread, and they’re effective. Her progression from normal little girl to a vessel for unspeakable evil is gradual, until the plot crashes into us – and the Winters family – and you realize along with all of them that there will be no return to innocence.
I’ve read reviews of this book after the fact where readers have surmised that it contains a major theme of how family violence gets passed down in families for one generation after another. As far as I can tell the events of the story happen over the course of a couple of weeks – I found myself assuming Jack had so much more time to figure out how to save his family, right up until the climax of the novel suddenly crashed down on him and us. Additionally, one of the factors that makes the possession and sundering of this family so painful to read is because Jack clearly loved his children, and treated them well, and he and Aimee loved each other and were fighting desperately to hold their family together. There wasn’t a history of violence in Jack’s family as far as we can see and even if there had been, experiencing familial abuse as a child isn’t a guarantee that a person will grow up to be abusive.
So in my opinion, this isn’t a story about the enduring nature of family violence. It’s simply a story about the Devil playing a game wherein he wagers that a parent will murder their possessed child to protect themselves, because even when he loses he wins, and he’s been winning like that for a very long time. And now it’s Jack’s turn to play.
I’d recommend this book to horror fans who appreciate a Southern Gothic set dressing, creepy kids and the slow reveal of a thriller, with a moderate amount of gore and a side of existential dread. As it turns out however, Ania Ahlborn is one of the more prolific horror authors in recent history, and the plots of her books run the gamut of horror tropes from cannibalistic hillbillies to haunted houses to unseen monsters lurking in the woods, so if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t yet heard of Ahlborn, it looks like she writes a little something for everybody…as it were.
*As a side note, I try to flag reviews of books I read where animals experience violence, because that can be a major trigger for a lot of folks. It feels silly in a book where so much haunting and harm comes to humans, including kids, which would theoretically take precedence over animals in a lot of our sympathies, but just in case I’ll put it here anyway: be aware, a dog is hurt during the course of this story.
– Review by Sarah, Main Library