The Horror Honeys: Haunted Bookclub ~ The Weight of Blood

Haunted Bookclub ~ The Weight of Blood

Hardcover Honey's Book of the Week - by Jocelyn

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Your Hardcover Honey has made her home in Kansas City, on the west side of Missouri, since 1995.  However, having grown up for the most part in St. Louis on the eastern-most side of the state and with family and friends still there to visit, I have spent many, many hours driving back and forth over the years across Highway 70, a battered two-lanes-in-each-direction stretching over 200 miles – dotted with rest stops, billboards, and a spot of civilization in the form of Columbia, Missouri, home to Mizzou and (more importantly to me, Shakespeare's Pizza).  The billboards along I-70 are a source of constant amusement to me, because they mostly fall into two categories.  The vaguely threatening religious ones (“I am coming down there and I am not happy” --GOD or “Heartbeat at TWO WEEKS!” with a picture of a six-month old cherub baby with a ribbon headband) and the smutty suggestive ones (“PASSION'S Adult Store.....for couples”, complete with misplaced apostrophe). It always seemed to me like in these tiny churchy towns along my way, plenty of dark secrets were likely hidden.

Like Daniel Woodrell's “Winter's Bone” and Gillian Flynn's “Dark Places” before it, Laura McHugh's “The Weight of Blood” mines this idea to produce a haunting and all-too-believable tale.  In rural Henbane, in the shadow of the Ozark mountains, seventeen-year-old Lucy Dane is preparing for a long hot summer, working at her Uncle Crete's general store Dane's, selling bait and Styrofoam coolers to the float-trippers.  Her father, Crete's younger brother Carl, travels a lot for his blue-collar jobs, leaving Lucy in charge of herself most nights.  

Lucy is a good kid, and not one to abuse her father's trust.  Most of her time is spent studying or with her best friend Bess, who lives nearby.  Less squeaky clean is Lucy's childhood friend and neighbor, the dimwitted and attention-starved Cheri, who, as the book opens, has been found dead and dismembered, her body hacked into pieces and stuffed into the hollow of an old tree across from Dane's.  Cheri has been missing for a year when her body turns up, and folks in Henbane have mostly written her off, but the discovery of her body brings fresh waves of terror to the town.  For Lucy, Cheri's death hits especially hard.  They had grown apart before Cheri's disappearance, which makes Lucy feel guilty – more importantly that that, though, is that Cheri's case brings back memories of another lost girl, Lucy's own mother, Lila, who walked into a nearby cave when Lucy was a baby and never came home.  Everybody accepts that Lila had taken her own life, but Lucy is sorely lacking in facts about her mom and can't understand why nobody will talk to her about it.  The long-standing locals in town are cold when it comes to Lila, some even speculating that she was a witch, drawing the menfolk to her with spells and such.  Some even speculate that Lucy may have inherited her skills, and it's true that Lucy, though no witch, does seem remarkably intuitive.

As seemingly federally mandated in any book about a teenage girl, there is, of course, a love interest in the form of local boy Daniel Cole.  But here McHugh surprised me in welcome ways – Daniel, though something of an archetype (the misunderstood good boy from a bad family) isn't all good or all bad, doesn't press Lucy for things she's not ready to give, doesn't try to control her, even grudgingly accepts a deal she strikes with a grimy youth who demands a kiss in exchange for information.  Said grimy youth is Jamie Petree – referred to as “wiry, which was what you called skinny people you didn’t want to mess with” – how great is that description??  Very Jesse Pinkman, right?  Just one example of McHugh’s lyrical language throughout, but one that stuck with me.  Another great line comes from Lila’s friend (and eventual mother of Lucy’s sidekick Bess) Gabby, who moves quickly from man to man and “wondered why men fucked what they hated and fucked what they loves and fucked what they didn’t give a fuck about” – shudder.

As Lucy's story progresses, so too does a parallel story narrated by the young Lila, in which we see Henbane 18 years prior, as she arrives out of foster care for what she thinks will be a two-year work program.  She gets tangled up with both Dane brothers and suffice it to say that the work isn't exactly what she was expecting. 

For the most part, the book winds together Lila and Lucy's stories as they work to solve their mysteries, however, McHugh periodically includes a chapter told from a minor character's point of view, like Birdie, a grandmotherly type who knew Lila and Lucy both, or Ransome, a gnarled woman who's spent her life assisting Crete Dane in whatever he needs – even when those tasks are dirty indeed.  The mysteries were engrossing.  Who killed Cheri and why?  What really happened to Lila on the day she disappeared?  When the answers come, they are plausible and well-written.  But for me, the most interesting angle of the book was this theme of a beautiful small town with a dark seam running down the middle – where people pick gooseberries for pie and make squirrel dumplings with the same hands they may use to maim and kill with.  

Next time I travel across the state, I will be making sure my gas tank is plenty full.  I'd hate to get stuck in a town like Henbane.

Hardcover Honey verdict: 4.5 dirty secrets out of 5 for this backwoods tale.