“A cynical twentysomething must confront her unconventional family’s dark secrets in this fiery, irreverent horror novel from the author of Such Sharp Teeth and Cackle.”
Hello again dear reader or listener, with a big thanks to the Berkley Publishing Group for approving my request for an eArc of this novel, I am finally getting to review an author I’ve had my eye on for a while. My thoughts remain honest as always.
Black Sheep is Rachel Harrison’s latest Contemporary Horror with a dash of dark humor, and if you know me, dear reader, you’ll know I freaking love dark humor. Add to the mix, our protagonist Vesper being an ex-member/survivor of a religious cult, and I simply couldn’t resist.
Cults aside, I’m pretty sure Harrison wrote this book for every person in their twenties out there; perfectly encapsulating our shared experience of identity and existential crises mixed in with the utterly conflicting yet inseparable feelings of almost desperately loving our family members while at the same time needing the space to figure out who we are separate from them, or, in some cases, despite them. Eventually trying to understand if this new person we are fits with how we were seen until then by others as well. We are struggling y’all. Vesper is described as cynical and snarky, and, while I spent the vast majority of this book going “what a mood”, I would argue that is the result, not only of her context, which I will get into in a moment, but also of that once again universal feeling we all go through in our twenties when we are finally becoming emotionally mature enough to understand the people we grew up with are not the flawless and perfectly put together figures we thought. I’m not saying it begins at that age, but it is around this decade that we can both see the flaws and understand them, and eventually decide how much of it we are willing to accept as immutable and workable, how much we are willing to try and change, and whether it is even worth trying. While still wanting to belong to what used to be or feeling some nostalgia for it. This is obviously more nuanced for every individual but the general vibe and feeling is there regardless of background or circumstances be they positive or negative.
Harrison manages to bring this gloriously confusing and chaotic mix of inner turmoil to the page with and added frank and no punches pulled commentary on organized religion and cults which I found on point at each turn.
Waxing philosophical aside then, I’d characterize this book as more vibes and inner thought driven than plot. We the reader are well and fully immersed and hooked by Vesper’s inner dialogue. Sometimes it even takes over the scene happening in that given moment, and while that does on occasion make the running action on page feel a mite disjointed, it is also a very good lens into what stream of consciousness feels like when your mind is on overdrive compared to the speed with which things are happening around you in that moment. Very much a duck on a pond example, calm on the surface, pedaling like mad underneath. Vesper’s initial attitude and ongoing swing between, cynicism, pragmaticism and trying to be nicer if not apathetic despite it all, creates a truly stark and blunt picture of the inner darkness that we are all prone to sometimes whenever we are feeling wronged. It validates any time we have an inner mean streak, that we’d be perfectly excused in having given the circumstances, but we keep it locked in and try to act the better person, even if said mean feelings are warranted. Her development throughout the novel and how it all concludes felt organic and satisfying in a way that made perfect sense to her character after everything she goes through in the story. With the exception of one earlier scene, I felt like the epilogue was my favorite part of the whole novel actually, pushing across the sense of nostalgia, ache, and the overall unsettling yet intrigued and morbid fascination you feel when you watch/read true crime stories some years after the fact.
As for the scene I mentioned, while I cannot go into details because spoilers, Harrison expertly wove that whole chapter, building the creeping tension, anxiety, betrayal, and eventual horror, as Vesper goes through the motions in what feels like a fever dream due to what is happening and how it came to it. In fact, while I spent most of this book amused by the snark or intrigued by how things would develop next, I never actually felt any surprise or shock at any of the twists, as I felt I knew what to expect at every turn. I’m not saying this is a predictable or boring book, nor a tame psychological horror. Quite the contrary, it’s not for the faint of heart when it comes to body horror and other kinds of trauma. However, being a fan of the genre for a long time, I have built quite a tolerance for it all so I am aware that what I now find expected and not particularly goosebump inducing, others may even physically react to. Harrison also did an incredible job at was showcasing what it means to be and feel utterly helpless and yet allowing spite to push you forward. As I said utterly satisfying.
As for some things that didn’t work too well for me, firstly I found that while Harrison opens up the way for an interesting side plot between Vesper and her mother Constance (and oooh the discourse that can be done there is again superb) she doesn’t fully deliver it, almost as if she forgot about it or preferred to save her word count for the main plot resolution. Which I’m also feeling conflicted about, because on the one hand as I said, I wasn’t surprised by what was happening and it works out. But at the same time, it felt over the top near the end, as if she were trying to hit all the known tropes and going full out on the chaotic and hysterical nature of everything. It makes sense, given the previously mentioned fever dream quality of those last chapters but I personally would’ve liked something more nuanced and dark to fit the initial vibe of the whole book, rather than the madness that felt almost cult horror campy in the chapters leading up to the epilogue. Another way to explain without spoilers would be to say the vibe of this book went from Rosemary’s Baby to Cabin in the Woods.
Black Sheep comes out today, September 19th and, regardless of its tonal change toward the end, it is the perfect read for anyone in their twenties hah, but also for anyone who wants that good dose of cultish vibes with a side of body horror and a good serving of existential crisis intertwined with some paranormal shenanigans of the organized religion type to go along with their autumn or Halloween reads.
Until next time,
Eleni A. E.