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Crossroads by Laurel Hightower4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf you like your horror to take you to the very extremities of emotional experience, you could not be blessed (or cursed) with a more lacerating nightmare than Laurel Hightower’s novella Crossroads. Granted, stories about parents grieving the loss of a child are so plentiful in horror fiction, going all the way back to “The Monkey’s Paw” and possibly even beyond, that I personally think the Bereaved Parent story ought to stand as its own horror subgenre. But like many other story ideas that feel like they’ve been done to death — pun intended — Laurel Hightower has found a fresh, new emotional abyss to plunge readers into.

Crossroads is the story of Chris, a divorced mother who, two years after the death of her teenage son Trey in a single-vehicle accident, still shows no signs of letting go or even wanting to. To outward appearances, she’s fine. She’s got a successful career doing social work, she gets along very well with her ex-husband and his new wife and stepdaughters, and she has the romantic interest of her neighbor Dan, possibly the ultimate in Kind, Supportive Partner material. But she makes a regular pilgrimage to the roadside cross that marks the accident site (an interesting detail is how she feels closer to Trey there than by visiting his grave), and in her head, she and Trey are always talking like they used to.

Everything changes one day when Chris nicks one of her fingers at the accident memorial, and a drop of her blood stains the soil. As any horror fan can tell you, it’s never good to bleed on the ground. Later that night, Chris is shocked to see Trey standing, but only for a brief moment, under a street light in front of her house.

It doesn’t take long for Chris to put two and two together, and soon she is returning to the site, doing what she must to ensure Trey’s little nightly visits continue. At this point it has to be said that any reader who’s sensitive to depictions of self-harm should probably give this story a hard pass, because it gets as bad as you think it does, and possibly worse. I have read a lot of horror, and even by the standards of some of the more demented body horror I’ve experienced, Crossroads had me physically wincing as I’ve never done before. What is remarkable though about Hightower’s storytelling here is how easily we allow our suspension of disbelief to accommodate Chris’s downward spiral.

For one thing, she’s not only not going insane here, she’s possibly more lucid than she’s been since losing Trey. The story makes it clear that Chris has always understood her conversations and interactions with Trey have, up to now, been all in her imagination, a common coping mechanism. But the visitations have been very real. And the horror really sets in when it becomes clear that the more Chris — ahem — sacrifices, the less good she’s actually doing. Trey comes to her each time looking more cadaverous and wasted away, his visits getting shorter. This isn’t merely some kind of supernatural exchange taking place, blood for life. Chris has stirred up something deeply evil, and wheels are in motion that may be very difficult to stop.

Yes, Chris’s desperate need to cling to her lost son is pathological beyond the dreams of analysts. But though it can feel at times like Hightower is skirting too closely to the edge of the disbelief precipice (such as in the way Dan remains supportive well past the point any other boyfriend would have staged an intervention), it’s helpful to remember that body horror especially is a genre that deals in extremes of behavior. Hightower is employing it here to explore the theme of parental devotion and responsibility, and how much is too much. Parenting, after all, involves giving a whole lot of yourself to the safety and needs of your children. The totality of Chris’s selfless commitment to Trey is contrasted with her own mother’s toxicity, her habit of making sure Chris knows at every opportunity just how much she resented what she sacrificed for her daughter, and what she feels Chris owes her for it. Chris’s behavior is not merely indicative of her devotion to Trey, it’s a harsh repudiation of everything her mother taught her about mothering.

Crossroads stumbles slightly at the climax, with a few story elements left unresolved that I felt should have had better closure. And an epilogue starring a couple of goofy cops in what is almost a Vaudeville routine does the overall story no favors. But I can think of few examples of horror fiction that have left me as disturbed and emotionally drained as this one, and Laurel Hightower has climbed effortlessly to the top of my list of authors to watch.