Beneath is one heck of a book, for the most part. I'll state up front that the ending didn't quite work for me, and it felt as if DeMeester wasn't sure how to wrap up the events of her story in a satisfying way. This is a slow-burn horror book, but where there should have been a big finale, the story disappointingly fizzles out and slowly fades away. I would also advise that this very much a "me" issues, and might not be a "you" issue, so please don't let that deter you. Read it and judge for yourself!
The first 3/4+ of Beneath are absolutely terrific. I really dug the atmosphere DeMeester conjures with her cult of Appalachian snake handlers and the investigative reporter, Cora, sent on assignment to dig up some dirt on these backwoods folks and their sincerely held religious belief that poisonous snakes should bite small children to see if God will deem them worthy of saving. Cora is a dogged journalist, but also deeply scarred by her mother's religiosity and her youth. In the opening pages, DeMeester lays out a history of Cora's victimization at the hands of a pedophile priest. This history first compels her to stay far, far away from the assignment, until she's finally goaded into taking the story from her editor. Once in the small mountain town, she notices hints that Father Michael is not the charismatic preacher he plays at, and recognizes in him similar pedophiliac traits as the abuser of her youth. When he stares a little too longingly at one of his parishioners, a young girl named Laura, Cora promises to ruin Michael and expose his cult for what it is.
All of this is merely prologue, though, for a dark and squirming horror story that pushes Beneath into some very different material than what I had expected at the outlay. While the war of wills between Cora and Michael could have been compelling on its own, the author ups the ante even further with the inclusion of a supernatural menace, an evil that lurks buried in the earth itself. The plots takes a wonderfully realized twist that good and truly sank its fangs into me, and I was totally captivated.
DeMeester hit some absolutely terrific highs, even as she takes a quiet approach to unraveling the frights. There's plenty of action, but the story itself is never bombastic. The subdued approach is what makes Beneath so effective and infecting. At least, for me, right up until the end.
Beneath ultimately falls into a familiar trap. You know the one. You've probably seen it a thousand times in any given James Bond movie. The bad guys have the heroes cornered, and it wouldn't take hardly anything at all to kill them and win the day. And yet, inexplicably, for no good reason at all, the good guys get a pass and are allowed to just walk away.
Something similar happens here in the push toward the grand finale, and I kept scratching my head as to why it was allowed. It's an easy out, and I can't think of one good reason why it should have happened the way it did. Still, the story continues to chug along for a few chapters more, mostly so the bad guys can continue to play their mind games for a little while longer. But instead of giving us a satisfying closure, DeMeester again goes for those quiet somber tones, which has worked so well for the rest of the book but suddenly falls flat in its final pages.
While the story kept ramping up and up and up, I kept wondering how the heck it was all going to resolve. And well, frankly, it doesn't. There is a resolution, yes, but the book mostly just ends, with the story itself very much an ouroborus. I get the metaphors and character arcs that DeMeester was aiming for, but it just didn't satisfy me. Granted, as far as ending go, it works, but it isn't satisfying.
Ratings-wise, I'm really very torn on how to score this one (damn you, Goodreads, for not allowing 1/2 stars!). This book was very much a 4-star title for me, right up until the end, which knocked it down a bit. Taken on a whole, though, I can't stomach giving this book only 3 stars, because I liked it quite a great deal more than that. Call it 3.75, rounded up to 4 then. Beneath is definitely recommended, even if I have some reservations, and I'll certainly be on the lookout for more of Kristi DeMeester's work in the future.
[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher, Word Horde.]
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