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Hemlock Island


Hemlock Island

HEMLOCK ISLAND is the eponymous setting for Kelley Armstrong's new stand-alone horror novel. Just the name of the island is a clue that it could be a dangerous place to visit. Laney, a divorced teacher who just published her first book, owns a beautiful house on the island. It was a gift from her ex-husband, Kit, when he walked away from their marriage. Laney must visit it because the current renters left in a huff after complaining about a blood-stained closet door. That, in conjunction with other strange happenings, causes her to investigate what's going on there.

With Laney is her niece, Madison, who is now in her care after the death of Laney's sister. When they get to the boat launch on Lake Superior, they find Kit there with Laney's former best friend and his sister, Jayla. The four of them head to the isolated island five miles off the coast of Michigan. There is no internet or cell service. Nor is there anyone else who lives on the island. When Kit and Laney divorced, he insisted on giving her the island because it was her dream home at a location she loved. She had envisioned it as a place where she could write, unfettered by life on the mainland. Just Laney and nature.

"As I was reading this book, I kept thinking about what a great movie or limited series it would make. The descriptions are so clear that we can almost see the group making its way across the small island."

But while Kit is the CEO of his family's tech company, Laney is an English teacher who just got her first book published. The only way she can afford the upkeep on the home is to rent it out when she isn't there. And the problems she's had with renters are legion. Her gazebo was burnt down, and they used her kayak and other items that were clearly labeled as private. They destroy plants and allow the furniture to be marred. They draw hex signs on rocks, and they laugh it off when their teenagers write their names on the leather of the boat seat in indelible marker.

Armstrong provides clues about the strangeness of Hemlock Island. We learn that while Lake Superior has islands, there are none so far from shore. This island "has had locals scratching their heads for decades" because they don't believe there should be an island in that location. But there is. While building the house, there were inexplicable accidents, but the beautiful structure with its huge open glass windows to the outside was finally finished.

After the four arrive on the island, two more unexpected visitors are dropped off by a charter boat. They are Sadie and her brother Garrett, who both have ties to Laney, Kit and Jayla going back decades. Sadie was one of Laney's best friends until something unexplained happened. We know that Kit, Laney and Jayla don't trust or like Garrett, but Armstrong doesn't share why until almost the end of the novel.

When bodies start appearing and people begin to disappear, the situation gets scary. Laney seems to be way too nice for many readers. But Jayla and Kit's suspicions and caution balance Laney's forgiving personality. All of them are united in their desire to protect Madison from whatever danger there is.

Armstrong is a master at building tension, and she holds back information to leave plenty of room for twists and turns and surprise revelations. While we may think that evil forces are at play, Armstrong provides us with a novel instrument of violence. Her ending isn't a "happily ever after" one; it is more thoughtful and nuanced.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking about what a great movie or limited series it would make. The descriptions are so clear that we can almost see the group making its way across the small island. We can see the grandeur of the house that Kit built for Laney, and we shiver at the huge expanses of glass that provide no privacy from those outside. And who among us (who read suspense or mystery novels) hasn't thought about houses with huge uncurtained windows facing a forest and how little privacy such openness provides?

Both horror fans and mystery readers will enjoy HEMLOCK ISLAND. And it's not just about the horror. There is plenty of mystery about Laney, her backstory, and her relationships with the others on the island. The revelations keep us reading because we want to know about that as much as we want to learn about whatever human or inhuman entity is causing all the violence.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on September 15, 2023

Hemlock Island
by Kelley Armstrong

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Horror
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250284198
  • ISBN-13: 9781250284198