Author: Brian McGreevy
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: Joe Mossman
There are times when I really love being wrong. Not just wrong, but stupidly wrong. Embarrassingly wrong. Like a couple of years ago, when I laughed at Christopher Nolan for casting Heath “gay cowboy” Ledger as the Joker. Or when I saw the first promos for the 2005 Doctor Who series and dismissed it as a lame, pandering reboot of a classic show. Or when I picked up Brian McGreevy’s debut novel Hemlock Grove, saw the furry paw/claw/hand on the cover, and assumed I was holding another tired horror novel about werewolves.
What I was actually holding was one of the most original books I’ve read in years, horror or otherwise. McGreevy defies every convention of character, plot, prose and genre in the story of Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania, a former mill town once held under the thumb of steel tycoon JR Godfrey. As the novel begins, the town has been rocked by a series of brutal mutilation/murders, and the authorities can’t figure out if the culprit is man or animal. Peter Rumancek, a greasy-haired, barely-tolerated Gypsy trailer kid, seems a likely suspect (or scapegoat), in part because he enjoys telling his not-so-bright classmates he’s a werewolf. There’s also Roman Godfrey, the spoiled teenage heir to the Godfrey fortune, who isn’t known for his compassion and has a spooky, Jedi-like way of bending people to his will. There’s also the Godfrey family’s newest venture, the White Tower; it seems that when the economic winds changed, the Godfreys shut down the steel mill and turned their attention to cutting-edge biotech. The White Tower is an Area 51-esque laboratory where, rumour has it, gruesome biological experiments are carried out … and townsfolk fear that some kind of genetically altered animal might have gotten loose.
Now, before we go any further, yes, Peter really is a werewolf. And Roman does have some kind of paranormal mind power. Those aren’t spoilers, both things are made pretty clear pretty early on. Roman’s mother Olivia might have something not-quite-human about her, too, but we’ll leave that be for now. And there’s certainly something otherworldly about Roman’s sister Shelley, a monstrously deformed, 7 foot-tall mute who wears crates filled with dirt on her feet and harbors a witty, genius-level IQ. It all sounds spectacularly strange, and it is, but McGreevy handles it with such deft style, such graceful writing (often wordy, heavily lyrical, but never boring), and such attention to detail that you’ll find yourself in this world with these people (Roman and Peter and Olivia and Norman Godfrey) while your own surroundings disappear around you, before you ever think to question anything. This is the best kind of writing, the Holy Grail every reader looks for (and every writer envies, myself included), the novel that bridges poetry and plot, literature and entertainment. You can tell that McGreevy just…writes. Just goes with it; doesn’t tinker or second-guess or wring his hands. The story flows, and it is about the story first: the story of two teenagers, Roman and Peter, two unlikely friends and allies who take it upon themselves (with the deadly serious recklessness of youth) to find whoever or whatever is murdering young girls in Hemlock Grove. The supernatural elements are unobtrusive, blended with a healthy shot of science fiction and mystery; even the biology and nature of the werewolf is treated in a fresh, almost matter-of-fact way.
I’m sold on this. Totally. And I’ll finish by saying something that’s going to sound like more gushing from a freshly minted fanboy, but I really mean this: Brian McGreevy could be the next Stephen King. No joke. Hemlock Grove could be his Carrie…in thirty years this will be the book people will still be reading, saying: “Hey, remember back when this guy got started?”
One last note: apparently McGreevy is not only working on a sequel (which will hopefully address Shelley’s fate and origins, among other things) but is also adapting Hemlock Grove into a TV series with Eli Roth, starring Famke Janssen as Olivia Godfrey and Dougray Scott as Dr. Norman Godfrey. If you can’t get your hands on the book (which would be a shame), keep your eyes peeled for that.