Fans of Brogden’s previous novels, The Narrows and Tourmaline, will know what to expect. This is urban horror fantasy, specifically Birmingham urban horror fantasy, a sub-genre which Brogden has claimed for his own. China Mieville has London but Brogden has Birmingham.
(Brogden was actually born in Australia and cites fellow Aussie Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock as a chief influence on Hekla’s Children.)
The novel begins in Sutton Park, where teacher Nathan Brookes loses four of his children in the woods. Three disappear without a trace, whilst the fourth returns a day later, starving and traumatised with severe memory loss. We soon learn that they stumbled into Un, the world behind our own, in which guardian spirit Bark Foot has spent millennia battling the monstrous afaugh to keep it from entering our world.
But when Bark Foot’s body is excavated from the ground by Dr Tara Doumani, the guardian’s spirit form is severely weakened and the afaugh finally gains its advantage. Nathan and Tara must unite to keep the demon at bay and finally find out what happened to the other three missing children…
The afaugh is a fiendishly brilliant creation. Brogden has amassed a menagerie of memorable monsters over the years – notably the araka, the hradix and the swarm in Tourmaline – and the afaugh does not disappoint. We read:
“The afaugh was a nightmare of terrible appetites… A pale thing, thin-necked and swollen-bellied with pitiless hunger… It’s mouth a tooth-filled maw almost as wide as its entire face.”
In one of the more disturbing scenes, the afaugh wriggles its way down a character’s throat despite being the size of a grown man. Although perhaps even more disturbing is the truth about the creature’s origins. Brogden goes full Shyamalan and delivers a sucker-punch of a twist that will stick with you long after the epilogue.
Much like Stephen King, Brogden knows how to keep a horror novel moving by concocting a smoothie of mystery, dark humour, pop culture references and enigmatic characters. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains. Our chief protagonist Nathan is flawed, showing no remorse for sleeping with another man’s fiancée. On the other hand, even the fearsome afaugh is sympathetic by the end.
And nobody throws a curveball like Brogden. There is an unexpected third act roshambo in which urban fantasy suddenly becomes fantasy, guaranteed to keep you turning those pages at breakneck speed. He puts his world-building credentials to good use – see Tourmaline and the caravan in The Narrows – and expands the novel in terms of geography, character, stakes and more.
Hekla’s Children is Brogden’s first collaboration with Titan Books – my compliments to the publisher for a great front cover – and horror fans should be excited about where this partnership goes next.
For now, pick up your copy of Hekla’s Children. It is one Hek of a good read.
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