Book Review: Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

 

Carol Evers is a woman with a dark secret. She has died many times . . . but her many deaths are not final: They are comas, a waking slumber indistinguishable from death, each lasting days.

Only two people know of Carol’s eerie condition. One is her husband, Dwight, who married Carol for her fortune, and—when she lapses into another coma—plots to seize it by proclaiming her dead and quickly burying her . . . alive. The other is her lost love, the infamous outlaw James Moxie. When word of Carol’s dreadful fate reaches him, Moxie rides the Trail again to save his beloved from an early, unnatural grave.

And all the while, awake and aware, Carol fights to free herself from the crippling darkness that binds her—summoning her own fierce will to survive. As the players in this drama of life and death fight to decide her fate, Carol must in the end battle to save herself.

What a strange book! The concept is pretty cool. Carol is a wealthy, well-loved woman, esteemed by the townsfolk of Harrows, but her husband fakes affection while yearning for her money. Dwight knows her deepest secret — that every once in a while, with no predictable pattern or symptoms, Carol falls into a coma indistinguishable from death. When Carol’s closest friend dies, she realizes she should take someone else into her confidence, in case she should have an episode while Dwight is away or too ill to intercede, but before she can share her secret, she goes under again, and Dwight launches his dastardly plan.

But all is not lost. Carol’s faithful maid alerts the man Carol once loved, the outlaw James Moxie. Moxie sets out on the dreaded, dangerous Trail to rescue Carol before she can be buried alive. But Moxie doesn’t ride alone — he’s pursued by a deranged, deadly assassin known as Smoke, who seems unstoppable and completely devoid of humanity. It’s a race against time, as James tries to reach Carol, Dwight tries to get Carol buried before she wakes, and Smoke keeps on coming and coming and coming.

There are some horrific moments, especially the scenes with Smoke. I won’t tell you why he has the name that he has, but trust me, it’s well-deserved and awful. As James rides to Carol’s rescue, we learn more about their sad history together, and meanwhile, we accompany Carol as she lies helpless in what she refers to as Howltown, the coma world she inhabits in which she’s aware of what’s going on around her, but unable to speak, move, or save herself from the terrible fate Dwight has planned for her.

The writing gives a classic Western twang to everything — gritty and profane and swaggering, with hints of violence and danger all at the same time.

It once was he rode into town and people blanched. Men avoided his eyes and women turned their backs, hoping not to be seen. It once was the domesticated dogs of the Trail-towns barked at him from afar. It once was he was whole, he was awesome, he was dread.

But he had no way of knowing that his loose lips, wet still with whiskey, had allowed powerful words to escape, words that would travel, mostly innocently, all the way to Sheriff Opal, who would consider it very odd indeed that someone with as many bedrooms as Dwight Evers would keep his dead bride in a cold, drafty storm room in a cellar.

There’s a difference between bad and evil, John Bowie once told her, his voice slurred with brandy. Bad is when you ignore the one you love. But evil is when you know exactly what that person wants, what means most to them, and you figure out how to take it away.

I liked the swear-words and cusses and exclamations the characters all use, such as “hell’s heaven” and “heaven’s hell”, and once (my favorite), “Lord of all hogs and pink piglets…”!

The drama mounts as the book progresses, as the stakes get higher and higher. We see the local sheriff trying to balance suspicion and facts, the maid who loves Carol drinking herself silly over her horror, Moxie’s reluctant return to his days of inspiring awe and terror in all he meets, Dwight’s mounting desperation, and Smoke’s unrelenting pursuit of Moxie and torment of anyone who crosses his path. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the storytelling and the writing itself, but once I did, I was hooked.

I’m not usually much of a fan of the Western genre, but this odd book ended up appealing to me in an unexpected sort of way. I liked the grimness and the feel of listening to an old-timey story about legendary figures of a by-gone time. I haven’t read anything else by this author, but I understand that Unbury Carol is quite a different feel from his other books (and yes, I know I need to read Bird Box!).

Overall, I found Unbury Carol really weird and off-beat, but in a good, creepy way.

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The details:

Title: Unbury Carol
Author: Josh Malerman
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Western/horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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