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Lute by Jennifer Thorne3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsFolk horror is a vibe, first and foremost, but it has much to say about human nature. The formula is simple. You need an isolated community that has rejected modernity in favor of ancient customs that are more sinister than benign. You need an outsider drawn into this environment who confronts these sinister forces. But you also need to convey a clear notion of the actual threat. A story about a monster in the woods isn’t necessarily folk horror, it’s just a monster story. The best folk horror reminds us that the real threat does not stem from nature or even the supernatural, but from people, their belief systems, and how they choose to act on them. Those chanting, singing hippies in robes who toss you into a wicker man and burn you to death don’t do it because some ancient god told them to, but because they believe it with their whole hearts.

Lute is a folk horror novel that tries to subvert many of these tropes, but with only some success. Jennifer Thorne sets her story on the fictive island of the book’s title, situated in England’s Bristol Channel, against a near-future backdrop of global war over water and other dwindling resources. The residents of Lute are doing pretty well, protected from the travails of the outside world as long as, every seven years, they observe the ritual of The Day. Over the course of one day, seven lives must be taken as tribute to whichever strange gods watch over the island and its people.

Nina is an American ex-pat married to Hugh Treadway, the lord of the manor. Nearly seven years before the story opens, Nina fled a cold and emotionally abusive family in Florida, where her only ally was her ailing grandmother. She met Hugh aboard an ocean liner, and they married after a whirlwind shipboard romance. I suspect any romance reader could have warned Nina right then and there she was letting herself in for a world of trouble.

Nina now has two young children and life on the island has been pretty nice, though she’s never really gotten used to living as lady of the manor. But now The Day is coming, and as many of the island’s residents are leaving for the duration, Hugh’s attempts to evacuate Nina and the children are thwarted by a bad boat engine. Now Nina is confronted head-on with the fact that, after nearly seven years on the island, she’s still an outsider, unsure of what her role is supposed to be as The Day approaches. Hugh is becoming more distant and emotionally aloof, which is the foreshadowing equivalent of setting off a foghorn, and there is massive tension between Nina and Hugh’s childhood buddy Matthew, which is the foreshadowing equivalent of setting off two foghorns and a fireworks display while a band plays the William Tell Overture.

From the start, readers are going to have questions. You see, what makes The Day so scary is that the seven deaths happen at random, kind of like Final Destination. You could simply die by slipping in the bathtub. There are no pagans in robes holding midnight rituals in a spooky grove, even though Thorne does actually have a spooky grove on her island as a huge red herring. But then you might ask, why doesn’t everybody just evacuate the island?

This is where Thorne shows both her strengths and shortcomings in setting up what the rules are. Much of the tension between characters does rest on who has a responsibility to Lute and its people, to place the needs of the community above personal considerations. But Thorne never really makes it clear what the broader consequences might be if no one stays. Presumably the island’s veil of protection will be lifted? But by whom or what? There’s a bigger picture here that Thorne only teases us with. On the one hand, it’s chilling when Nina realizes that no one on the island has any clue who or what entities they’re being sacrificed to. But wispy dream sequences featuring glowing beings and the hoofbeats of an unseen horse are just vague supernatural window dressing, and don’t really illuminate anything.

On the other hand, the book is very successful as a character piece. Thorne is much more invested in Nina’s personal journey, and she gives her protagonist a strong narrative voice. Nina starts the story mostly passive, lacking confidence and agency, which we quickly learn is the damage she’s suffered from her upbringing, that makes her either act foolishly or fail to act at all out of fear. Thus Lute becomes the story of how Nina overcomes and self-actualizes. And while the book doesn’t rise all that well to some of the challenges of good folk horror (because to be honest, too much is predictable), Thorne still gives us some excellent dramatic scenes and shows a really good grasp of how to use folk horror’s metaphorical qualities. Most of us go through life understanding that we’re at the mercy of forces we can’t control, and so it’s up to us to be grateful for every day, and to build the best life for ourselves and our families and those around us in whatever brief time we might have. Because for each of us, one day, The Day will come.