Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Published by Flame Tree Press on October 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
People are dying at Strong Lake, and the worst is yet to come.
An idyllic weekend camping trip is cut short when Reese Wallace’s friends are brutally murdered. As the group’s only survivor, Reese is the prime suspect, and his story doesn’t make much sense. A disembodied voice warning him to leave the campground the night before? A strange, blackened tree that gave him an electric shock when he cut it down for firewood?
Detective Greyeyes isn’t having any of it―until she hears the voice herself and finds an arrowhead at the crime scene―an arrowhead she can’t get rid of. Troubling visions of a doomed Native American tribe who once called the campground home, and rumors of cursed land and a mythical beast plague the strangest murder case she’s ever been a part of.
Today is Halloween, which marks my annual foray into horror – or at least horror-adjacency. But this time, it’s horror. Real, honest-to-goodness, not to be read with the lights off or right before bedtime, horror.
And it’s creepy and compelling and compellingly creepy. And I’m still creeped out.
There’s that whole thing about “mystery wrapped in an enigma”. Those Who Came Before, is horror wrapped in a police procedural interwoven with true crime historic horror and coated with blood and gore and stink and plenty more horror. The creepy kind that keeps you – or at least me – up at night. And the historic kind that makes you sick to your stomach as well at humanity’s past and present inhumanity to anyone of its kind that it can pretend isn’t – even though it most definitely is.
There’s horror and then there’s horror. The horror of the series of inexplicable deaths, and the historic horror of the smallpox epidemic among the Native tribes that was deliberately inflicted by the white settlers.
All in a tiny campground that absolutely no one wants. A place that should either be labeled “Here Be Monsters”, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” or both. Definitely both.
Reese Wallace begins the story, and the night, as a dorky, jerky kid, a college graduate who hasn’t grown up yet. In the morning he wakes up in that campground, covered in blood, surrounded by the bodies of the three friends he went camping with.
He didn’t hear a thing while they were tormented and dismembered. But he didn’t do it.
The question that Detective Maria Greyeyes has to solve is not so much whodunnit as what dunnit? And does she need to believe in it in order to stop it before it kills again? It certainly believes in her.
Escape Rating A-: Reese is way too much of an entitled jerk in the beginning, and the bullying, abusive cop (who does get what’s coming to him) is a bit too much of a cliche to make this a full A – but it was definitely close. But OMG this thing is compelling, especially the parts where Maria Greyeyes is trying to follow standard police procedure to investigate a crime that is so far from standard that it follows her home at night – literally.
At the same time, the terrible history that is explored, through dreams as well as research, is chilling because that part of the story is real. White settlers really did deliberately infect Native tribes by handing out blankets infected with smallpox. And plenty worse. This part of the story reminded me of the excellent, totally chilling true crime story Killers of the Flower Moon.
What happens in Those Who Came Before is creepier because it veers from that historic horror to contemporary horror, as the bodies pile up. And as the spirit of whatever has gone so very wrong manages to invade both Reese’s and Maria’s daily lives.
As a story, that felt like the most horror invested – or infested – part. In their attempt to find out what went wrong and fix it, they become unable to trust themselves and their own actions and reactions. They are both afraid that they have become the horror they are trying to prevent.
The ending of this one is terrifying in the wide openness of its possibilities – and the horror that might return.