Blood Harvest by SJ Bolton and The Rapture by Liz Jensen

I finished Justin Cronin's appalling pile of stinking nonsense, The Passage, before we went away, and was planning to read Rebecca Hunt's Mr Chartwell on my holiday. Unfortunately, after the first five excellent, intriguing, unsettling pages I managed to leave the book in a Glasgow hotel room on our way up to the Highlands, so that was that. Fortunately, the charming town of Ullapool has two bookshops, at which I purchased Blood Harvest by SJ Bolton and The Rapture by Liz Jensen.

Blood Harvest is a dark rural thriller set in an isolated Lancashire town. It's all terribly creepy stuff - the town has a shadowy past of child deaths and disappearances, and, while thankfully stopping short of setting fire to policemen, clings to the sorts of seasonal folkloric traditions you'd expect from the villagers in The Wicker Man. It's an unsettling place for outsiders, and it's from these outsiders' points of view that the story unfolds: the Fletcher family, whose brand-new home abuts the churchyard, Evi, a disabled psychiatrist assigned to work with a young woman haunted by the loss of her child, and Harry, the new vicar.

Tom, the eldest Fletcher child, is terrorised by visions of a sinister, deformed girl in the churchyard. Voices are heard, cruel and life-threatening tricks are played, and secrets - many, many secrets - are kept by the insular community, led by the patriarchal land-owning Renshaw family.  Heptonclough has some gruesome skeletons in its cupboard, and it's up to Harry and Evi to unearth them. The mystery plot really is gripping and the horror mounts impressively - I couldn't fault Blood Harvest for page-turning tension and shiversome, shuddersome atmosphere.

Its weaknesses, then, come primarily from character rather than plot. Harry, while largely likeable, is a standard 'trendy liberal vicar' stereotype - he's essentially Alan from The Archers. The Fletcher parents made no impression on me whatsoever and the Fletcher children didn't ring especially true for me either: their behaviour and reactions were certainly more dictated by the needs of the plot than by what would be realistic or consistent for children of their ages. Evi was much more successful, but her growing relationship with Harry made me wince - their flirting is cringeworthy in the extreme with dialogue straight from a Richard Curtis film. Fortunately, the relationship becomes a little more convincing as the plot builds, and I'd have to give Bolton considerable credit for not taking the easiest path for their budding romance as the story concludes.

I was reminded throughout of Phil Rickman's excellent Merrily Watkins series, which have a similar insular, secretive rural setting, the same echoes of the supernatural and also feature a young vicar (female, this time). I don't think Blood Harvest is quite as good as Rickman's series - particularly the later books - but there's the same sense of atmosphere, and the guilty pleasure I got from racing my way through Blood Harvest echoed the ease with which the pages turn whenever I've gone away with a Phil Rickman book tucked in my suitcase.

***

Oddly, my next bit of holiday reading also turned out to feature a disabled psychiatrist as a central character. The Rapture by Liz Jensen is a sharply-written thriller which starts small and ends big, as the plot, rolling snowball style, rapidly gathers substance and scope. Gabrielle Fox, recently out of rehabilitation after an accident which has left her paraplegic, is sent to work at a high-security psychiatric institution for criminally disturbed teenagers. Her first patient is Bethany Krall. Now 16, Bethany killed her mother at 14 by repeatedly stabbing her with a screwdriver. Now she's having terrifying, violent and horribly accurate visions of natural disasters. Is Bethany really predicting the future... or is she making it happen?

The Rapture starts slowly before building to a frenetic, tense, action-packed conclusion. However, what it gains in pace it loses in realism and moves firmly into the apocalyptic thriller genre rather than the subtler, more psychological read I was expecting, to the point where I rather felt I'd read two different books altogether. Not that that's really a criticism. It's thought-provoking, deals with huge themes and events, and includes many moments of incredibly dark humour as well as nail-biting tension - there were times when I was strongly reminded of some of the work of Chuck Palahniuk.

I didn't enjoy The Rapture quite as much as I loved Jensen's earlier novel, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (you can read my review of that one here). Interestingly, both novels have at their core a disturbed and dislikeable child with unexplained psychic abilities - but give me creepy, precocious little Louis over the stroppy, attention-seeking Bethany any time. I realise, of course, that Bethany is supposed to be vile, but it's clear that we're also supposed to come to feel sorry for her. And yes, I did... but nowhere as much as I felt the author wanted me to. And ultimately, I preferred the microcosmic focus of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, which revolves around a single dysfunctional family, to the global sweep of The Rapture. But that's a small criticism. The Rapture is crammed with multiple layers of nuance and theme, convincingly flawed characters and a rollercoaster of a plot. Maybe not the most uplifting book you'll ever read, but the more you read, the more you'll struggle to put it down.

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