Immortelle by Catherine McCarthy
Book review by Shane Douglas Keene
You know how you sometimes finish a book, and it was a perfect you sort of read? And you know it’s going to be a bitch trying to find a satisfying follow-on? Well, Beverley Lee’s Gabriel Davenport Series was just such an experience. I almost had an existential crisis knowing I would be lost without another dark tome of amazing to dive into. Why do I mention Lee in a review about this book? Because along came Catherine McCarthy with a new novella coming out in July from Off Limits Press. I’ve had little experience with the author, but a fair bit with Off Limits. Enough to know they’re a safe bet and should be an insta-buy for you every time.
And so it is with McCarthy’s Immortelle, which swept in like a gift from gods I don’t believe in, saving me from perfect-read purgatory. Because this motherfucker outright sings to you.
As with Laurel Hightower’s Crossroads, this book is, at its roots, the story of a heartbroken mother, Elinor, after the senseless death of her only child, who she believes came afoul of the sinister priest in the local church. And that’s all the, “about this book,” you’re getting out of me. This one would be far too easy to spoil with small details. In a nutshell, it’s a perfectly paced, smoldering beauty of a folk horror story with some big, and chilling as the grave, surprises coming to it.
Catherine is a natural storyteller, with a voice all her own and the skill to bring vivid, visceral emotion to you. And of course, the key ingredients to the success of this novella are a very familiar formula: start with great characters, drop them in a setting so real you feel like you could go there, and then use them to hurt you with. This is what the author does in Immortelle. It’s remarkable how fast this story rips through you. It takes its time, but it’s constantly ramping up, the chills piling one upon another, and it feels effortless–trust me when I tell you it isn’t. McCarthy spoon-feeds you honey, but she’s got scalpels concealed and she wields them as a master surgeon would, precise, at first painless, then beginning to bite as the blood wells up in the tiny little cuts. Vicious, aching wounds that bleed inward to the places where your darkness lives.
And then there’s the cherry in the cocktail. The final ingredient in her recipe is her own heart, and Catherine’s heart is made of dark magic. She evokes teardrops and smiles, love and hate, and ultimately, some sort of redemption in the heart of tragedy, pitting a bereft mother alone against the impossible, and guiding her through an evolution of love, loss, and ultimately, a delightfully satisfying ending… followed by the realization that you’re suddenly in perfect read purgatory again. And it was damn well worth the return trip.
In the subgenre of quiet horror, you won’t find many examples of it as good as this one. The slow-crackling burn of the folk horror Catherine McCarthy creates is a breath of fresh air, and a welcome wonder in a market where everybody and their cats are trying to make a big bloody splash. If you like your horror with a splash of literary, a folk horror flare, and no small amount of magical realism, Catherine McCarthy is what you need, and if you haven’t read her, well, you know what I’m going to say… Just do it.