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  • Writer's pictureTantra Bensko

Contemporary Gothic Novel, The Awakening by S.J. Bolton

I enjoyed S.J. Bolton's contemporary 2009's Gothic novel, Awakening, very much, and I'm tickled to discover new additions to

"Clara Benning, a veterinary surgeon, is young and intelligent, but reclusive. Disfigured by a childhood accident, she prefers animals to people. When a man dies following a supposed snakebite, Clara's expertise is needed. She's chilled to learn that the victim's postmortem shows a higher concentration of venom than could ever be found in one snake: The killer was human. Assisted by a neighbor and an eccentric reptile expert, Clara uncovers links to an ancient ritual, an abandoned house, and a fifty-year-old tragedy. But for someone the truth must remain buried in the past―even if they have to kill to keep it there.
Awakening is a disturbing tale of dark secrets that will have readers unable to stop for a breath until they reach the stunning climax of this extraordinary read from acclaimed author S. J. Bolton." -- Amazon book description

Some of the snakes are among the deadliest in the world. The caves and tunnels are some of the darkest and crumbliest. This truly takes us into the depths of the psyche, the worst of the nightmare, in the best Gothic tradition. And as all Gothic novels, it has not only horror but poignant, deeply real romance as well as detailing the psychological breakdowns amid labyrinthine secrets that must be solved to survive. The occult element is also there in full force, without going over into the dark side of actual paranormal, so I didn't have to suspend disbelief. We can also check off the Gothic tropes of isolation, the building with secrets, the doppleganger, the sensation that maybe something impossible is happening, the grotesque characters in which their physical appearance symbolizes something about their inner selves, the everyone-is-a-suspect, discovering new family members, and mistaken identity. I admire books that cover all the ground of this delightful genre. Add in the charismatic cult leader, and I'm in heaven.

I found the first half somewhat mediocre compared to the second half. It really went full-on into the depths of darkness at the Midpoint and the first half was a bit more gravel gray. By the time I slid into the second half, I agreed with The Times, in Harrogate the summer of 2011, which called S.J. Bolton the "high priestess of rural gothic crime."

Paradoxically, the protagonist, the disfigured veterinarian, Clara Benning, answers the call to become less reclusive over the course of the action, so the narrative rebels against that outdated trope nicely. I love all the creative, complex ways damaged characters devise to survive in fascinating locations in this thick, beautifully written novel. I really cared about what happened to the elusive mysterious characters, and I hungered for the revelation who they actually were. Some of them are very depraved, but even they have a kind of horrific dusty glamor.

I learned some facts about snakes and was glad the protagonist was a vet who cared about the individual snakes' well-being and they weren't just used as scare tactics against phobic characters and readers. I bonded with the author while reading because of my own experiences with snakes. Not just regularly attending snake handling church in Alabama but experiences of amazing loving telepathy with the creatures. I'm so glad to see Bolton demonstrate the profound inter-species understanding that can occur.

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