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Book: “Daphne” by Josh Malerman
Publishing Info: Del Rey Publications, September 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: It’s the last summer for Kit Lamb: The last summer before college. The last summer with her high school basketball team, and with Dana, her best friend. The last summer before her life begins.
But the night before the big game, one of the players tells a ghost story about Daphne, a girl who went to their school many years ago and died under mysterious circumstances. Some say she was murdered, others that she died by her own hand. And some say that Daphne is a murderer herself. They also say that Daphne is still out there, obsessed with revenge, and will appear to kill again anytime someone thinks about her.
After Kit hears the story, her teammates vanish, one by one, and Kit begins to suspect that the stories about Daphne are real . . . and to fear that her own mind is conjuring the killer. Now it’s a race against time as Kit searches for the truth behind the legend and learns to face her own fears—before the summer of her life becomes the last summer of her life.
Mixing a nostalgic coming-of-age story and an instantly iconic female villain with an innovative new vision of classic horror, Daphne is an unforgettable thriller as only Josh Malerman could imagine it.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
Let me set the scene. It was 2003. I was a senior in high school. One afternoon in the senior lounge during the school day ‘X period’ (aka a free period where clubs could meet or kids could talk to teachers or you could just dick around for a bit), some other girls and I started talking about Bloody Mary. We decided it would be fun to go to the locker rooms by the gym and play, as it had been FOREVER since we all had. I went with this group of girls, none of whom who were my friends, per se, just classmates whose orbits I generally wasn’t around, but bonded by nostalgia for an urban legend. We turned off the lights, said ‘I believe in Bloody Mary’ three times, and expected nothing of it. So imagine our surprise when there was a loud BANG in the darkness of the locker room. We tore out screaming, only to find out shortly thereafter a gym teacher was tidying up and that was the bang, and we had scared her to death with our terrified shrieks. I kept thinking about this story while I read Josh Malerman’s newest book “Daphne”, a horror novel about an urban legend that slasher kills her way through a high school girls basketball team. Mostly because of the urban legend factor. But also because this deeply disturbing horror novel also touches on the undercurrent left unsaid in this memory: that of teetering between youth, and adulthood, and the things we grapple with in between.
First and foremost, yes, “Daphne” is a very unsettling horror story, and I expected nothing less from Malerman. I’ve enjoyed the other books I’ve read of his, and I think that this one is probably the scariest yet for me. He knows how to slowly build a strangling dread as our cast of characters, a group of high school basketball players with WNBA dreams and interests, are picked off one by one by a brutal urban legend called Daphne after her story is told at a sleepover. We mostly focus on star player Kit, a girl who loves her teammates and the game, but is also plagued by her own struggles with severe anxiety, even before she starts obsessively thinking about Daphne and those around her start dying. Malerman does a fantastic job of slowly pacing the tension in this story so that the reader goes through similar beats as the characters. General unease slowly morphs to gear morphs to genuine dread. The characters find themselves thinking of Daphne, and then she comes for them in truly grotesque, slasher-y ways, and I was basically freaking out every time we got to a kill scene. It’s brutal and very splatter-y, but the tension is top notch psychological suspense to give it more oomph. We slowly start to get the real story behind the urban legend, and we start to care about these characters and invest in them even know we know that terrible things at the hands of this ghost, or monster, or SOMETHING are going to happen to them. It’s unnerving as hell and it really got under my skin. I think that I would have liked a bit more come down at the end, as all the tension has to go somewhere and I didn’t feel like there was enough room for it by the conclusion. But ultimately this book delivers on scares. EVEN THE GODDAMN COVER JUST FUCKS WITH MY HEAD.
But along with the scares is the very relatable undercurrent of Kit’s anxiety, anxiety about not only Daphne, but also of the unknown aspects of life itself. I’m someone who has been grappling with anxiety my entire life, and one of the worst times was in high school because of how much was unknown. I had no idea what life had in store after I left the very familiar life I was leading, with my parents and my friends and my family being left behind. As someone who had panic attacks, a good amount of them in late high school, I really, really related to Kit, and I loved that Malerman wanted to explore her mind even beyond that of a slasher killer’s potential victim, but also a girl who is battling her fears of the unknown as they manifest into panic attacks and buzzing dread without obvious cause. Perhaps it doesn’t get to this level for all teens, but Kit battling her mind to try and keep Daphne out is just as much Kit battling her mind to keep fear itself out. It hit home in a way I wasn’t really expecting, and just felt like it really captured that unease about what comes next when you are about to leave the life you’ve known for eighteen years. And really, the way that Daphne creeps up on you until you can’t stop thinking about her, and then completely wrecks you? That’s anxiety in a nutshell. Daphne crushes her victims, just as anxiety crushes those that it affects.
“Daphne” is going to stay with me awhile. It’s deeply fucked but also bittersweet. And like the titular character, I don’t see myself being able to stop thinking about it for awhile.
Rating 9: Disturbing, unnerving, and in some ways bittersweet, “Daphne” is a horror novel that won’t leave a reader’s thoughts for awhile after reading it.
“Daphne” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward to in 2022”.