Horror author Brian McGreevy knows something about the lurking evil that underpins small towns, as evidenced by his debut novel, Hemlock Grove, originally published in hardcover in 2012 and now available both in paperback and as a new Netflix original TV series from director Eli Roth – the series has been picked up for a second season after the first debuted this past spring. I can tell you that Hemlock Grove is unflinching in its depiction of small town life, haunted as it may be werewolves and other creatures of the night. I know something about this personally.
If you’ll indulge me a moment, I can tell you that I grew up in a real life ’Salem’s Lot: the small hamlet of Wilno, Ontario, Canada. Known as the oldest Polish settlement in Canada (it was first settled in 1859), the burg has a reputation as being Vampire Central. In the late ‘60s, an American researcher came to Wilno and interviewed 15 people who claimed that vampires were living in Wilno. He wound up writing a report for an Ottawa museum in 1972 – two copies of which are in the Library and Archives of Canada in downtown Ottawa, if you don’t believe me – and it’s full of spine-tingling stuff, such as this statement from one informant: “Something came in the night and drew blood from her arm. It was a vampire. It came for my daughter at night and took marrow… She was weak and had all her blood drawn out.”
True story. Well, I do think that the people of Wilno were pulling the leg of an outsider – an American, at that – and I personally never encountered any demons of the night when I lived there between 1979 and 1982. Still, the “myth” remains, and the town has been covered by the likes of the National Enquirer.
So, to read a book that has the same mythological elements as the town in which I grew up is telling. McGreevy metaphorically hits the nail on the head in writing about small town life – in Pennsylvania, which happens to rhyme with Transylvania – and the monsters that it harbors. Essentially, the plot revolves around a series of murders of young women whose bodies are mangled beyond recognition. The authorities think the killings were committed by animals at first, but the town is ringed with eccentric characters and monsters who may or may not have done it.
For one, there’s a character who tells people that he’s a werewolf, and actually is one (I give little away here as this is revealed in the first 50 pages or so). Another character, a teenaged drug addict and heir to an outrageous family fortune (the family that more or less built the town) seemingly has mystical abilities to control people’s thoughts. Another character is pregnant, though claims to still be a virgin. Another character, a female high school student, is something of a Frankenstein’s monster: she’s seven feet tall, wears square shoes and doesn’t talk very much. And then there’s the nature of the town’s newfound source of jobs and income: a biotech facility where some claim bizarre research into raising the dead is going on. Maybe something escaped from there?
What McGreevy does particularly well is paint a town that’s in transition: Hemlock Grove started out as a steel-producing town, but that industry has seemingly gone belly-up in favour of new, emerging biotech technology – much in the same way that the area around Wilno is now changing from a forestry economy to a more tourism oriented one. It’s little wonder then, that the characters are a little lost, with men cheating on their wives with members of the same family (though not blood relations).
The adolescents all rank among the freaks and geeks class. At one point, one character surmises that, “She liked Peter better than other boys because he was just easy to be around, you didn’t have to worry about coming off as weird because he was the weirdest person you had ever met.” Small towns are naturally populated with characters, but the weird ones seem to gravitate to Hemlock Grove, perhaps, as it’s the only place on Earth that would dare take them all in. As McGreevy writes, “So after a century-long legacy as a mill town, much of Hemlock Grove had transmuted into middle-class blamelessness.”
McGreevy also has a caustic humour. When one character notes that “Money doesn’t make you dumb”, another thinks in his head that, no, “[It] just made you used to people caring what you think.” As well, the author has a flair for an eye for detail, and describing his characters to the nth degree. One middle-aged female character is described as wearing, “a white Hermès pantsuit in brazen Old World indifference that Labor Day has been weeks ago, with a head scarf around a head of black hair and blacker Jackie O sunglasses.” It’s these little glimmers of portraiture that elevates Hemlock Grove from much of its horror peers. But those looking for squeamish blood and guts will not walk away from the novel disappointed. The bodies soon begin to pile up, and in ghastly means that would cause even Stephen King to blush.
However, Hemlock Grove has its faults, and one is that there are simply too many characters to sustain such a short (just more than 300 pages) novel. This tactic creates an air of instability early on, but it soon begins to be a little difficult to sort out one person from the next and how they’re all interconnected with each other. The climax and denouement, too, are garbled and jumbled – while I never quite saw the identity of the murderer coming, I’m still not sure why this individual did what they did. There’s also that subplot about bringing back the dead, and it seemingly goes absolutely nowhere.
Still, Hemlock Grove is an engrossing (and just plain gross) read: a balm for those who are sick of romanticized young adult fiction that treats vampirism as something profoundly sexy. McGreevy paints a bleak, unsentimental picture of small town life, and the truisms that life growing up in nowhere is particularly the hardest life to live, complete with the usual universal traumas of teenage sex and the availability of brain-nulling drugs. Hemlock Grove may be horror fiction, but the most horrific thing about it is seeing how the Hatfields and McCoys get along in such a confined space.
In essence, Hemlock Grove is about living as an Outsider, even when you’re a member of a town’s high-standing social caste. And, yes, there are werewolves to be had. There are werewolves aplenty.