Nate and I recently decided to standardize our review process. I’ll be using the brand new Words About Books Review Rubric to guide this review and determine the final rating. Exciting stuff, I know.
Before I start the review, I need to talk about how I came to be reading this book and why it was such a unique experience for me. I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast, but for new readers or listeners, I am a software developer. I’ve spent most of my career living and working in central Pennsylvania. This is relevant because the author of Shepherd’s Fall is a software developer living and working in central PA, and more importantly, the main character of this book is also software developer living and working and central PA.
I’ve never been able to picture a character’s environment so vividly. It took me out of the story several times to hear roads and businesses that I frequent mentioned in a horror novel. I also don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken. I imagine most Americans don’t even know that’s a thing. Some of the locations are fictionalized, but based on descriptions and the distance characters travel to real places, I’m fairly certain I’ve even worked in the same business park that the main character works in.
I wonder if this is how people from New England feel reading a Stephen King novel? If you’re not from a major city and you ever get the opportunity to read a horror novel set in your home town, I recommend it. It’s weird.
Unfortunately, despite our very similar lives, I have never met George Appelt Jr. I’m sorry to say that I’m not very involved with the local writing scene. A mutual friend, who knows I do the Words About Books podcast, handed me a copy of his book and said I might want to cover it.
So, with all that in mind. Let’s discuss Shepherd’s Fall, a horror story set a little too close to home, by an author who has vanished from the internet.
Shepherd’s Fall is George R Appelt Jr.’s take on the classic “American Haunted House” genre. A family from Philadelphia buys an old Victorian house that has a dark past. Appelt distinguishes himself right off the bat by skipping the traditional slow build of escalating paranormal activity until its presence is undeniable. The paranormal is in the reader’s face from the get-go.
Chapter one kicks the book off with our protagonist, Will, having a vivid hallucination that he’s hit a small child with his car. Chapters in this book are short, and most feature some kind of scare. By chapter 4, which is page-10, one of the movers who is bringing a large mirror into the house is violently killed by glass when he drops the mirror. Only this time it is not a hallucination.
The tension in the book comes from a constant questioning of Will’s perception of reality. The scares in the book are split pretty evenly between hallucinations and real-life danger. The reader will constantly wonder if Will is going to go too far in his reactions to a hallucination, and do something he can’t take back.
This constant questioning of whether or not what we’re reading is “really happening” is both a strength and a weakness. It does keep tensions high and pages turning, but because Appelt eschews traditional pacing, things very quickly ramp up to a point where I find it difficult to believe that Will is not institutionalized. For example, Will complains to his wife that he is blacking out for hours at a time with no idea how he got home or where he was. He frequently sees things that no one else does and reacts with an intensity that would be alarming to the people around him. All the while, he feels strangely compelled to start collecting guns.
I suppose it can be argued that Will’s wife Sarah is also being influenced by the house and this is why she allows his spiral into madness to continue. This brings me to another narrative weakness, though. Appelt will attempt to make the Shepherds’ marriage the emotional core of the book. I think this is the correct approach, because the haunted house story is an excellent metaphor for the terrible things that go on behind closed doors. Unfortunately, Appelt seems reluctant to fully commit to the metaphor.
Sarah feels underdeveloped as a character. We know that she has some special connection to the house. We know that she is nice. But we don’t really know much about her. Her entire character is that she is Will’s wife.
Will is tempted to cheat on Sarah with a woman from work. Will’s ability to resist this temptation is symbolic of his ability to resist the evil in his house. The affair subplot remains very surface-level. We don’t really know why he wants to cheat other than that the woman from work is very attractive and not yelling at him for working too late and hallucinating all the time.
We’re told that Will and Sarah’s marriage is good before they move into the house. The external evil of the house is the only strain on their marriage. Presumably, if the demonic taint can be removed, their marriage will go back to being rock solid. This was a missed opportunity to tell a story in which a marriage is made stronger through overcoming conflict.
The haunting itself stems from the house being constructed on cursed land. It manifests as hallucinations for Will. A dangerous imaginary friend for his daughter, and a strange obsession with the house for his wife. Friends who visit are at serious risk of death if they poke around too much or attempt to warn the family of the danger they’re in. The story is equal parts Haunting of Hill House, Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Shining, etc, etc.
There are by my count about 4 main characters and 10-15 side characters, including ghosts, that the book attempts to develop over its relatively short page time. The main criticism I have for this book is that it tries to be too many things. I think a few of these ideas given more time to breathe would have made a more interesting narrative.
That said, Appelt does manage tie up most of the story threads by the end of the book. I was impressed by just how much of a plan Appelt had for this story. I was certain going into the third act that this was just going to fizzle out. Without getting into major spoilers, I feel the ending stumbles a bit, but ultimately sticks the landing.
Shepherd’s Fall is light read that manages to be creepy without being too much for a casual horror reader to handle. While there were some opportunities for the book to take things to the next level, it never fails to be entertaining. There is plenty of tension, set ups that are paid off, and even a little mystery. I would definitely be willing to check out more from Appelt.
Ideas/Organization/Content – 0.5/1
The plot needs some work. I don’t think any of the ideas are bad, but they don’t all belong in this story. I understand the temptation to throw everything you’ve got at your first story to make it as good as possible, but sometimes less is more.
Appelt is bringing some interesting stuff to the table. I think there’s enough material here for 2 or 3 stories. I just wish there was more time for it to breathe.
Style/Voice – 1/1
Appelt took the old adage “write what you know” to heart. I definitely get the vibe that there is a lot of himself in Will. I also respect his choice to go for a non-traditional pacing in his ghost story.
Word Choice/Sentence Fluency – 1/1
No complaints here. Appelt is a very competent writer. The dialog feels a little bit off to me, but I think that’s just an age difference. I get the vibe that based on the time this is set that I would have been closer to Will’s daughter’s age than Will’s age. It’s ambiguous what the year is, but I’m guessing late/90s, or early 2000s
Personal Preference 1/2
For all the issues I have with the plot, I like book. It’s no secret that I am a fan of pulpy horror and that’s what this is. I miss the days when fun horror paperbacks dominated the shelves. George R. Appelt Jr. is serving a satisfying, and fun horror story. I couldn’t recommend it to everyone, but for people who love horror (especially if they’re from central PA) I think this is a good time.