“Dripping in Gothic tension”, the endorsement by Doug Johnstone on the cover of The Healing of Luther Grove, is an pretty accurate summation of the book. Barry Gornell’s debut novel, funded with the aid of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Bursary, contains all the elements of a traditional horror. Right from the first sentence, “Luther Grove was content with four kills”, violence and foreboding permeate the narrative, building in intensity until the final dramatic conclusion. Gornell’s novel is not written as easy reading; designed to shock and to scare, it also manages critique patriarchy and to convey interesting ideas about the nature of masculinity. Two paragraphs in and you might guess where the story is going, but the plot does not lose its power and you are compelled to read on as early sympathies formed with characters are challenged and broken. A potent mix of relatable characters and a fascinating use of language make The Healing of Luther Grove a compelling read.
Taking place over the space of four days, the plot is not unlike a typical horror film you might have seen on late night television: the sort of film that your parents might expressly forbid you to watch, but your morbid curiosity forces you to anyway. Rich, professional, thirty-somethings John and Laura Payne live with their young child at their new house in the Scottish Highlands. Their brand new idyllic lifestyle may initially seem like the perfect escape from the pressures of being modern working parents. But the Paynes soon find out that, of course, there is more to their new home than stunning scenery and fresh venison burgers for supper. The titular Luther Grove lives opposite; he is a dark, brooding enigma of a man who reeks, to John Payne at least, of being a serial killer. The friction between our trio is only exacerbated with the arrival of John’s brother, Frank, a truly detestable character that serves as the catalyst for the plot’s escalating acts of violence.
The story is told out from the perspective of both (Laura) Payne and Grove, the latter being the more interesting due to the narrative’s clever fusion of the past and present, providing informative glimpses into the mind of a broken man. A true sense of unease pervades the tale; few grisly details are left out in the blunt and provocative narration. However The Healing of Luther Grove does not descend into a pastiche, or become so exaggerated that it loses its power to horrify, as is often the danger for this kind of genre writing. Interestingly the novel is narrated in one straight block and without chapter breaks; this adds to its furious pace and leaves the reader with very few opportunities to put the book down. Whilst such a strategy might have been irritating in a longer novel, it goes almost unnoticed here and serves as an intriguing stylistic choice.
Gornell’s novel reads like an Stephen King short story but with the added social commentary of an early Iain Banks novel. The Healing of Luther Grove is an unusual read; its ideas about masculinity in modern society are certainly thought-provoking. However Gornell might have picked the wrong format in which to tell that story because further development of this theme is still needed, But this should not take away from what is essentially a powerful horror novel The book may be hard to recommend to anyone not already a fan of the genre. But for those who are, there is enough tension and horror here. Absolutely vital reading it might not be but those picking it up will definitely not regret doing so. I would certainly be interested to read more by this debut novelist.