There’s a village in rural Appalachia where the people’s faith is strong. They speak in tongues, and handle venomous snakes without fear. If their hearts are pure, they will not be harmed.
Cora Mayburn is a reporter sent to interview the village’s charismatic preacher. Her editor hopes for a juicy story of gullible hicks engaged in bizarre rites, and Cora just wants to finish the job and get back to the city as soon as possible. But she soon discovers that the story is about much more than just credulous zealots.
Deep in the earth, something is moving. Something ancient and evil is waking up, writhing its unholy bulk towards the surface. Cora has to work with the preacher she despises to find out exactly what is going on, and how to stop it.
Beneath is not an action-horror book. It’s not a standard story of finding and fighting a monster. Throughout, this book is pure horror. The monster – such as it is – is hard to understand, and even once you understand it, hard to combat in any meaningful sense. I appreciate that – too many horror stories run out of the key emotion when the protagonists start fighting back easily.
There’s a lot of detailed description, and that’s one of the main strengths of the book. Description of growing madness, transformation, hallucinations. Many of the characters have, due to the nature of what they’re facing, a somewhat tenuous hold on reality, and that’s where the description comes into focus; the characters and the reader are unsure what is truly real, and the prose has a dreamlike, unsettling quality to it.
The plot gets a little attenuated towards the end of the book, and there were a few scenes that I felt could have been folded into one another. The second half of a horror novel is really difficult to get right though, and a loss of pace is not a massive problem. Throughout, DeMeester keeps up the unsettling atmosphere – the scenes don’t do much for the plot, but they do pile on the horror.
In all, Beneath is really good. Kristi De Meester has constructed a horror novel that manages to be consistently scary, threatening the characters without ever spilling over into gratuitous violence. Violence and sex are both present in the story, but they serve the narrative and the ideas, rather than just being thrown in haphazardly. With that said, there is quite a lot of sex, and it’s not there for titillation. It’s part of the horror, and it is disturbing.
“Disturbing”, in fact, is probably the best way to describe Beneath in a single word. Beneath was not a happy or a fun book to read. It was dark and creepy and unsettling, and that’s exactly what I want from a novel about snake cults.