The Worsening is a methodical sinking into a place no one wants to go. Dark psychological horror done with a paranormal twist. Stanton uses sight, and especially smell, to transport the reader into this oh-so-painfully dark place. There’s a reason Carla hasn’t seen her family for years. And after reading just a few lines of her mother’s dialogue I can see why. However, the death of Carla’s father forces her return to the family’s home in West Virginia. The isolated mountain top setting is a place that “eats men.” Carla is far too passive to deal effectively with her overbearing mother and a life in West Virginia she was not a part of. When the family moved there, she wasn’t invited. Told with a multitude of flashbacks, this story is painful, sad, and brutal. The one ray of light is Carla’s memories of her father, MJ. However, even those bright recollections are darkened by his recent death.
There is little happiness in this novel. I’m not sure what to compare it to. This is pitch black, slow-building, inescapable horror and Stanton writes it extremely well. Typically, something this bleak would be relegated to my “The Road” pile. But the writing is so damn good, I cannot arbitrarily cast it into “the-never-to-be-thought-of-again” bin. Words, phrases, scenes, characters are vibrant even though color is non-existent.
Abby and Matty are two of worst characters I’ve read. Worse than anything the gloom-and-doomer Victorians created. This is where Stanton shines, in making the reader hate these two antagonists to the point you want to crawl into the pages, despite the claustrophobic darkness, and smack some decency into them. Alas, all we can do is read in terror, and hope Carla comes out of this okay. However, her powerlessness to confront them is too deeply ingrained. Though now an adult, she is a product of her childhood. This makes it impossible for her to stand up to Matty, her little known younger brother, as she feels he, like her, is the innocent result of a bad upbringing.
The paranormal elements add immeasurably to the overall feeling of dread. From visions under the moonlight, to specters in the cemetery, spirits are present, whether in warning or welcome is unclear. In this regard, I’m reminded of King’s Gerald’s Game. How much of the paranormal is “real” and how much is “imagined” is left to the reader to decide. There is a lot going on in The Worsening, little of it good, but it is written truly great.
I hope a sequel is forthcoming. A return to the mountain is needed, for what happened there needs to be vindicated. An excellent book, just don’t expect to smile.