A.J. Vrana’s debut “The Hollow Gods” is an exciting contemporary horror-fantasy that shines when it declines to play frights, which are easy, and instead explores dread, collective and generational grief, trauma, and historical responsibility.
We follow Miya – a local girl of the Black Hollow (where the entire book takes places) with a close connection to local folklore; Kai – a bad boy, beef jerky enthusiast and werewolf (in that order); and Mason – a young oncologist who lost his first patient and decided to leave the city and embark on a myth-busting adventure for therapeutic reasons. All of them are different, and all of them are a lot of fun to experience the horror/mystery plot through. The character roster offers three slices (even more glimpses from secondary characters) of life of different social orders, different ways of life – from the disenfranchised and marginalized Kai who lives in the woods and eats from the hands of the good Samaritans on parking lots, to struggling university student Miya, to the successful, financially well-off but miserable Mason.
The citizens of the titular Black Hollow village play a collective character, a terrifyingly complex and multifaceted glimpse into the multigenerational grief over a mistake, made hundreds of years ago, that still torments the populace. The solution is established early on – to face the music, to accept the responsibility and move on. Mirroring the reluctance of the so-called Western World to accept and process its past, the citizens of Black Hollow prefer to pay the blood price and sacrifice their young instead.
A significant part of the fun of the characters, and the overall success of the book, is A.J. Vrana’s firm belief in the power of stories. Even before the book begins, she established that “stories aren’t told to convey the facts. They’re told to convey the truth…”. That is why the fragmented, surgically precise narrative builds from the utterly, painfully ordinary to the absurd, and fantastic.
And then Vrana gives us the scenes in the cabin in the woods where the characters traverse realities through the dreamscapes to meet the mythological and surreal horrors and spirits. The sense of dread and fantastic felt like the Lacanian Real as opposed to the repressing real of the characters’ lives. If the first part is reminiscent of Stephen King in his peak years, the second tries to embrace the weirdness of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Even if “Hollow Gods” doesn’t go the full length to accept the inherent Lynch-ism of its narrative, it makes all the right conclusions.
The fantastical is not used to excuse the sins of the Black Hollow residents and the necessity to accept the past and assume responsibility is not spirited away by the literal spirits. Instead, Miya, Kai, and Mason accept it and assumed it.
A.J. Vrana produced an observant, to the point of claustrophobically real, a portrait of human nature – both as a collective and a very personal one.
“The Hollow Gods” comes out on July 28, 2020 by The Parliament House Press