Puzzle Box Horror’s book recommendation of the week is Gemma Amor’s “Girl on Fire.” Gemma Amor is a Bram Stoker Award nominated horror fiction author, podcaster and voice actor based in the UK. Her books include Cruel Works of Nature, Dear Laura,White Pines, Girl on Fire, and These Wounds We Make. She’s also co-creator, writer and voice actor for horror-comedy podcast Calling Darkness, starring Kate Siegel. Her stories are feature on the NoSleep Podcast, Shadows at the Door, Creepy and the Grey Rooms podcast.
SYNOPSIS: Ruby Miller is free at last. Free from her past, her tormentor, her shitty family and the even shittier odds she was given at birth. But freedom has a price, and when the young girl hell-bent on starting a new life crashes her cherry red 1989 Pontiac Bonneville on America’s loneliest road, she finds out just how dear that price is. From the Bram Stoker Award nominated author of Dear Laura and White Pines comes a new novella, a searing tale of fire, revenge and redemption, a coming-of-age tale with a bite, because, let’s face it… happy endings are for children, and some girls just want to watch the world burn.
Review by Ben Vicariously 4/5 stars.
This story starts with a bang (literally) and is paced like wildfire, zipping through a tale of a young girl’s burning fury being unleashed upon the world. Ruby’s traumatic past haunts her still, and all she wants to do is see the world burn. She is the girl on fire, and her killing rage is both righteous and overwhelmingly destructive. Unfortunately for those around her it is only going to escalate.
Tritone’s love of horror and mystery began at a young age. Growing up in the 80’s he got to see some of the greatest horror movies play out in the best of venues, the drive-in theater. That’s when his obsession with the genre really began—but it wasn’t just the movies, it was the games, the books, the comics, and the lore behind it all that really ignited his obsession. Tritone is a published author and continues to write and write about horror whenever possible.
Is there anything more complex than religious faith? Faith can be ineffably inspirational and intractably inflexible, a source of hope to motivate some of humanity’s greatest heroes and an excuse to defend some of our most despicable monsters. And when most people talk about the subject, they tend to focus on one quality to the exclusion of the other.
So it’s to the credit of British author C.J. Tudor that her novel The Burning Girls incorporates faith into horror story in a humane and principled manner. The book’s title refers to two young girls martyred in the 16th century for their Protestant beliefs. Today, villagers in their hometown remember “the Sussex Martyrs” as champions, holding memorial ceremonies and constructing twig dolls in homage. And sometimes, the girls’ flaming ghosts appear as omens to those who are in trouble.
The most important troubled person is Reverend Jack Brooks, a vicar who has been moved, along with her fourteen-year-old daughter Flo, to the tiny Sussex village Chapel Cross from her urban parish in Nottingham. Jack brings along her troubled past, including the murder of a young parishioner, her husband’s shadowy death, and a family history that she does not want to discuss with anyone, including us readers.
Despite her increasingly weighty baggage, Jack makes for a kind and engaging lead. Serving as the narrator for the majority of the book’s chapters (Tudor employs third-person voice for chapters focusing on other characters), Jack is quick with a quip and a forgiving aside, without ever feeling like a saint. The mercy she extends to others stems from an awareness of her shortcomings. When she begins judging a colleague for engaging in a sin of omission, she checks herself and thinks, “Who am I to judge?”
This isn’t to say that Jack doesn’t make mistakes. She gives into anger and (like all parents) constantly flubs in her decisions with Flo. But given how easily this smoking, swearing, horror-movie-watching woman of the cloth could become a “cool priest” cliché, there’s something refreshingly real to Jack’s grounded approach to the transcendent, especially to a lifelong practicing Christian like me. The Burning Girls insists that everyone has their demons and fights them their own way.
Despite the certainly admirable quality of this theme, the novel does become laden with tragedy. Everyone from a small-time reporter to a fellow vicar’s wife has a tragic backstory, which can become overwhelming. Given the mundane atrocities that mark The Burning Girls, pyro specters and crooked exorcism blades seem excessive.
The problem is exacerbated by Tudor’s sometimes too-lean prose, which prioritizes snappy dialogue over clearly defined spaces and characters. The book often reads like a script, as conversations between characters can go on for over a page, with little more than a signal phrase to break it up. As a result, the characters feel thin, as we’re forced to construct our mental image of them from the things they say, rather than the physical attributes the narrator allows us to see. This tendency crosses over from frustrating to irritating when the characters indulge in pop-culture references, talking about Evil Dead, Bill Hicks, and (with surprising frequency) The Usual Suspects. Unless you’re Nick Hornby, readers shouldn’t know more about your protagonists’ movie collections than we do about their physical features.
Fortunately, Tudor balances these issues by moving the plot along swiftly. The author shows a deft hand at revealing clues and mysteries, allowing connections between the Sussex martyrs, the disappearance of two teen girls and a local priest, and Jack’s biography, to float into view with satisfying elegance. The reader feels like an active participant in the adventure, never ahead of the characters and rarely trailing behind.
The Burning Girls treads some truly horrific ground, recounting some of the worst things humans can do to one another. And it does not shy away from the fact that religious faith often drives these acts of brutality. But it also shows us how faith can be a healing element, compelling us to care for each other, all the more in the face of such cruelty.
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