Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Rachel Harrison certainly hasn’t taken a long time to put her writing degree to use, with her second novel, Cackle, having already come out in October 2021. Presenting a new and modern twist on the witch story, it follows a young woman who moves into a small town upstate from Manhattan and finds herself drawn to Sophie, a young lady whose magnetism seems utterly unnatural.
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Rachel Harrison Revives the Oldest Horror
Though I cannot vouch for the children of today, I still feel confident in saying it is quite difficult to grow up without becoming acquainted with the concept of witches or their local equivalents. While it is a timeless concept, it is one which has, in large part, lost its appeal among the adult crowd; fairy tales have stopped being scary a long time ago. In her second published novel titled Cackle, Rachel Harrison makes an attempt to bringing the concept of witches into the modern era.
The story begins by introducing us to our main character, Annie, living in Manhattan and generally disappointed with her current state of affairs. Her longtime boyfriend has recently dumped her, and she is looking for a fresh start to take her away from the haunting mistakes of her previous life. Such an opportunity comes in the form of a teaching position in a small village upstate.
Upon her arrival, Annie feels like she has stumbled into the perfect retreat for her to put her life back together, with the pace of life there being slow and friendly, the exact contrary of what she has been experiencing for a little too long in the big city. Before long she makes the acquaintance of the beautiful and charming Sophie, who seems to be living apart from the rest of the village.
Strong, independent, and strangely magnetic, Sophie draws Annie closer and closer into her orbit, and it doesn’t take long for the two to become best friends. Sophie seemingly wants nothing more than to help Annie fulfill her wishes and help her move on from the devastating breakup which sent her life spiraling down.
Though overtly Sophie seems like the best friend Annie could have ever asked for, she does start to suspect not everything is as it seems. There is an otherworldly quality to her mansion in the middle of the woods, her appearance has an uncanny perfection to it, and the townsfolk seem to have an aversion to her, or perhaps more accurately, a palpable fear.
The Cozy Horror of Cackle
Peoples’ expectations from horror stories have drastically changed over the years, becoming increasingly extreme in their demands for blood, gore, violence, frightening monsters, and, for some reason, sparkling vampires. As such, I tend to pass on most books in the horror genre, but Cackle caught my attention for its promise of having none of the above.
In other words, if you enjoy your horror stories with a strong dose of gratuitous violence and spewing fountains of blood, you’ll likely be disappointed in how little “action” there is in this novel, at least in the modern sense of the term. Instead, Rachel Harrison takes the opposite approach and makes it more of a slow-burning character study.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some moments in this book which could be qualified as jump-scares, and there is a reigning atmosphere of frightening uncertainty, largely revolving around Sophie’s true intentions. However, it always felt to me like there was the unstated stipulation there wouldn’t be any sudden eruptions of danger out of nowhere.
There is a certain cozy sensation permeating through the plot, and I believe it’s largely a result of the mixture produced by the quaint setting and the slow, deliberate pace at which the events unfold. Instead of going for scares, the author put all her effort into creating a sense of creeping dread, often counterbalanced by the beauty of the town and the everlasting warmth of its residents.
Rachel Harrison takes her time in building up the tension and the overall feeling of the story, slowly but surely increasing the amount of alarming elements for the first half of the novel until the reveal comes about. Following that point, the novel starts to veer more and more into horror territory, with dark and devilish happenings increasing in frequency.
A Witch Hunt with Humour
No matter how dark the events taking place might be, they are always contrasted by a welcome portion of humour, ranging from Annie’s observations about life in general to having a spider named Ralph as one of the characters. Rachel Harrison is also mindful of not overloading the reader with humour in every sentence, using it strategically where it has the most impact.
The writing in Cackle is also quite clever in and of itself, with the author having a truly impressive command of the English language. It’s quite obvious the text has been written and edited with great care, to the point where it felt to me like there was nothing missing nor superfluous. While I do think a couple of plot threads didn’t see their potential completely fulfilled, within the context of the story the way everything is wrapped up makes perfect sense.
Despite the fact we already know what Sophie is and where things are headed (in the first half, at least), getting to the revelation remains as enthralling as it would have been had we been unable to guess anything, and it’s largely because of how well-realized the characters were. Though the secondary characters to get a chance to shine in the limelight, the brunt of the focus is understandably placed on Annie and Sophie.
Based on this novel alone, I’d say Rachel Harrison is extremely talented when it comes to writing characters, having a good understanding of what it takes to make them likeable, relatable, and most importantly, realistic within the confines of the story. Annie is quite easy to understand, her motivations and consequent actions are always consistent with her developing personality, and her thoughts are invariably interesting to hear.
Sophie, on the other side of the equation, is perhaps one of the better antagonists I’ve seen in a horror story, especially in recent times. She isn’t outright evil for the sake of it, being far from simplistic in her motivations. She is multifaceted with a profound world of her own inside her head, and our time with her is no less entertaining than with Annie. The drive to unravel the mystery of her being also becomes increasingly prominent as the story advances, and in some ways, I felt like she was the true main character of the story.
|304||Berkley||Oct. 5 2021||978-0593202029|
The Final Verdict
Cackle by Rachel Harrison is a calm, cozy, intelligent and humorous horror story, bringing the concept of the witch into the modern world. In my opinion, it towers above most of its peers with its reliance on imaginative and high-quality storytelling instead of cheap or shocking effects.
If you’re looking for a horror story which takes it slow, focuses on the characters, and offers something different from most other books in the genre, then I highly recommend you give this novel a shot.
Rachel Harrison is an American author hailing from New Jersey, with a bachelor’s in writing for film and television from Emerson College. After graduating she worked on various TV game shows, in the publishing industry, as well as for bank, and has published two novels, The Return and Cackle.