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In the Dark of the Grove by Jon Wesley Huff
Book review by Sydney Bollinger
In the Dark of the Grove by Jon Wesley Huff is a queer horror novel that follows Kyle Thomas, who has returned to his family home because his parents have both passed away. His father, Herb, was an author and published Dunbar’s Grove, a book believed by many in Kyle’s hometown of Essen, Indiana, to be a murder confession for the death of Kyle’s mom years earlier. Kyle has been estranged from his parents for fifteen years; they kicked him out after he came out as gay. Now he’s back in the town that has rejected him to tie up loose ends after the death of both of his parents.
Throughout the novel, Kyle must contend with the legacy of his father’s last novel, which takes place in The Grove—a mystical place in Essen that has been the topic of ghost stories and other frightening lore. As he digs deeper into The Grove’s mystery, he finds himself unraveling the dark secrets of his hometown, including the mystery surrounding the Minty Green Club, an exclusive local organization. While navigating the facets of mystery, Kyle also finds himself pining after Patrick Kirby, a hot local, and meeting up with old friends Janie and Max. Kyle must use his time back in Essen to clear his father of murder accusations and find out the sinister thing that lies beneath.
In the Dark of the Grove was published by Gurt Dog Press—a publisher of LGBTQ+ speculative fiction—in October 2021.
I was provided an eARC by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Huff’s writing is immediately inviting; I found myself tearing through the novel in the span of a couple days, racing through chapter after chapter. It’s easy to get lost in his expert portrayal of Essen, Indiana—a quintessential small Midwestern town with its own quirks, characters, and mysterious lore. Though a novel with supernatural elements, Huff routinely grounded his narrative in place and in character, tying together the threads of family mystery, local legend, and personal growth.
As someone who grew up in a smalltown, reading In the Dark of the Grove triggered a very specific set of memories for me. Huff excels in his characterization of Essen. The community, which consists of both “town” and farmland, is reminiscent of farming communities across the Midwest. Though evil is afoot, Huff treats the variety of characters with care, understanding the unique voices of Midwestern communities. Kyle and his friend Janie, specifically, are both outsiders in the community—Kyle for being gay, Janie for being Mexican. I loved seeing the relationship between these two grow throughout the book, especially since they had been apart for so many years. Additionally, Kyle’s romantic relationship with Patrick is fun to read. The two men, despite their similar upbringings, occupy different stages of queer identity with Kyle being out and living his life as a gay men and Patrick remaining closeted in order to still fit in with the Essen community and stay in his parent’s good graces.
Though an LGBTQ+ horror novel, Kyle and Patrick’s relationship is not the central plotline of the book, which I appreciated. The two men support each other (and have sex), but their romance does not make the mystery and suspense secondary in the story.
The mystery and horror of In the Dark of the Grove continued being entertaining until the last page. Huff builds on commonplace Midwestern local legends and ghost stories, of which there are many (I lived in a small farming community in Ohio and even we had so much local lore). The mystery is dual-faceted, revolving both around the mysterious circumstances regarding his father’s suicide and the unexplained wealth and success of Essen’s residents, despite living in a rather modest community. Kyle is at the center of both of these mysteries because they are intrinsically linked. As he makes headway in understanding his father’s death, he also unravels unexplained phenomena in Essen.
The latter half of the novel definitely seemed to focus more on the mystery. After the midway point, the book picked up pace as we joined Kyle on his mission to uncover the truth about his community and the mysterious Minty Green Club, where the strange and unusual seems to originate. Huff has to cover a lot of ground—provide backstory and characterization for Kyle as well as all of the supporting characters, build out the town, and include the lore. In doing so, there were times when I felt like I missed something or did not quite understand the relationship between two of the characters. This didn’t impact my experience reading though, because Huff consistently made effort to ground the reader in the book’s present.
Huff excelled in writing horror, especially during the book’s climax. Usually, I’m not too fazed when reading (or watching) horror, but the frightening at the center of In the Dark of the Grove plays on real fears and anxieties surrounding religion and the church, all the while diving into monster territory. This novel, though, made me want to squirm throughout the apex as I was both worried for Kyle and contending with a creature that could haunt my nightmares.
Huff’s discussion of religion, specifically Christianity, throughout the book was nuanced and did not demonize Christianity—reminding readers that Christianity is not just represented by the “religious right.” Kyle’s friend Janie, in particular, represents a different kind of Christian whose religious beliefs influence her life and make her a champion for justice and treating all people equitably. Portrayals of Christianity and religion like Huff’s better represent the complicated and messy entanglement of religion while acknowledging that nothing in terms of religion is all bad.
I definitely recommend this book, especially for fans of horror, science fiction, and fiction about queer folks! Not only does In the Dark of the Grove have wonderful, diverse characters, the mystery at the center of the novel is both fresh and nuanced. The book is a relatively quick read, perfect for chilly, dark winter nights.
Purchase In the Dark of the Grove on Amazon.
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