Review by Brennan LaFaro
Off Limits Press is currently batting a thousand after kicking things off with last year’s Crossroads by Laurel Hightower, followed by The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper. Two very tough acts to follow, but McGregor’s Hearts Strange and Dreadful is up to the task.
McGregor was a new-to-me name despite having well over ten books to his name. The historical horror aspect combined with the early-1800’s New England setting caught my attention and the publisher on the back cover cemented it. Hester Stokely, an orphan who lost her parents in a fire, lives with her aunt and uncle in Wickstead, RI. Death rides into town one day in the form of a sickly man on a horse, and the novel unfolds from there.
McGregor interweaves the threads masterfully, slowly unfurling a quiet horror rife with creepy atmosphere, great characterization, and a touch of paranoia as the mystery of what’s happening in Wickstead is revealed. The main element that successfully contributes to the atmosphere is the isolation conveyed surrounding the town. The relative distance to any other towns delivers the kind of small-town horror we get in books like Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek but with an added layer of being completely disconnected from the outside world. Whatever is happening, no one out there can help or save them.
The characterisation feels (note feels because I haven’t done the research) very genuine to the time period. Writing a first-person POV from a teenage girl in 1821 is arguably a bold move, but it pays off. McGregor provides insight to Hester Stokely that couldn’t have come any other way. The characters surrounding her, from her Uncle Pardon to Will and Henry, all feel fully fleshed out and move the story into a place that makes us suspect McGregor knew what he was doing from the first word.
I won’t go on about the end of the book for fear of spoilers, but if you begin and feel as though the story is moving too slow, do yourself a favor and stick with it. The set-up is utterly necessary for the payoffs that come later and the emotional weight they bring with them.
Hearts Strange and Dreadful is something of a perfect storm. An intriguing premise brought to life by vibrant characters who make the reader care when events ramp up ultimately resulting in an ending that requires the reader be invested, or it doesn’t work. A gamble on McGregor’s part, but one that pays off in spades. The Off Limits run on quality horror continues.
I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration.