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Book: “A History of Fear” by Luke Dumas
Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Grayson Hale, the most infamous murderer in Scotland, is better known by a different name: the Devil’s Advocate. The twenty-five-year-old American grad student rose to instant notoriety when he confessed to the slaughter of his classmate Liam Stewart, claiming the Devil made him do it.
When Hale is found hanged in his prison cell, officers uncover a handwritten manuscript that promises to answer the question that’s haunted the nation for years: was Hale a lunatic, or had he been telling the truth all along?
Unnervingly, Hale doesn’t fit the bill of a killer. The first-person narrative that centers this novel reveals an acerbic young atheist, newly enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to carry on the legacy of his recently deceased father. In need of cash, he takes a job ghostwriting a mysterious book for a dark stranger, but has misgivings when the project begins to reawaken his satanophobia, a rare condition that causes him to live in terror that the Devil is after him. As he struggles to disentangle fact from fear, Grayson’s world is turned upside-down after events force him to confront his growing suspicion that he’s working for the one he has feared all this time—and that the book is only the beginning of their partnership.
A History of Fear is a propulsive foray into the darkness of the human psyche, marrying dread-inducing atmosphere and heart-palpitating storytelling.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
In the wide wide swaths of horror sub genres, many of which I tread in and out of as I go on my reading adventures, there are two that I don’t really prioritize based on my own personal preferences. The first is literary horror. It’s not that I don’t like literary horror, it’s more a visceral response that I have that is similar to cinema that uses the phrase ‘elevated’ horror; specifically that I feel like when something is bragged to be literary horror, it implies that genre horror is ‘less than’. That’s a chip on my shoulder, one hundred percent. The other is any horror that involves The Devil, and THAT is based on the fact that I have rage triggers involving Satanic Panic, and that I also just don’t believe in The Devil as The Adversary. So perhaps it was weird that I wanted to read “A History of Fear” by Luke Dumas, which is billed as literary horror about a man who claims the Devil made him murder a friend. But I guess I was feeling daring, because I requested this book and therefore committed to it. And honestly, I’m glad I took the chance, because even as two sub genres that don’t work well for me, this one did work!
There is always an undercurrent of ambiguity in this novel that adds to the disorientation and unease, due to a few different factors. The first is that the majority of the POV is through the eyes of Grayson Hale, a man who was convicted of murdering a fellow student and blaming it on the devil. As the reader reads the pages, there is already a sense of unreliability, as it is unclear as to whether Hale actually did run afoul the Devil through D.B., the man who wants him to write a book about the Devil in Scotland, or if he is a very disturbed individual who was in actuality battling against more metaphorical demons. The second is that there are snippets of interviews and commentaries from an outside party of a reporter named Daniela, who so intrigued with the tale and Hale’s memoir that she sets out to try and figure out just what DID happen. I liked how we would get Hale’s perspective, and then have it picked at and added to by Daniela’s notes. Is he really being tormented by a mysterious ‘D.B.’ who was employer turned villain? Is he really seeing flying demons? Or is it all a part of a childhood fear of the devil that has come to fruition because of untreated mental illness? It makes for a very well rounded and multi faceted tale, and makes it so the reader is both put off by Hale, but for many, many reasons finds reasons to pity him. I really loved how it allowed for bit revelations to be sprinkled in without feeling overreached in the main narrative. And on the flip side, it also means that the reader can have the rug yanked out from under their expectations.
As for horror elements, Dumas approaches it from a few different ways. As Hale’s paranoia grows, the dread really builds, and we have descriptions of shadowy beings lurking in Hale’s periphery, as well as winged beasts that he is certain are stalking him and attacking him. There are, of course, devil themes and demon themes as well, but as someone who isn’t particularly scared by the idea of The Devil it wasn’t really this main horror trope that put me off and set my teeth on edge. It was more the question of whether or not Hale is actually perhaps losing his grip on reality, and how his life experience and childhood memories of trauma and isolation and self loathing can wreak so much havoc. I would say that “A History of Fear” is very much a ‘literary’ horror novel in the sense that Dumas experiments with narrative structure and various subversions of elements, but it’s also because at its heart a meditation on what ‘evil’ is, and how it manifests in very real ways.
“A History of Fear” is a chilling read for a dark winter night. It will leave the reader with questions and doubt, and will get under one’s skin because of it.
Rating 8: A haunting, ambiguous, and ultimately tragic literary horror novel that oozes malice and unease.
“A History of Fear” is included on the Goodreads list “Bring on the Creepy!”.