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Agony's Lodestone by Laura Keating4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn this absorbing horror novella, Laura Keating explores family grief and reconciliation in a manner much less harrowing than, say, Ari Aster in Hereditary. Still, Agony’s Lodestone plumbs its characters’ depths with no less a commitment to emotional truth. Aggie, Alex and Bailey Neilson are siblings who have still never fully come to terms with the disappearance, years before, of their eldest sister Joanne. A teen swimming champion, Joanne’s athletic gifts made her the family’s golden child in their New Brunswick town. But privately, she was your typical sullen teenager angry over the expectations placed on her as well as her parents’ lack of faith that her swimming skills could lead to an actual career. One day, after a family row, Joanne took the dog for a walk. The dog came home on his own. Joanne never did.

The surviving siblings now live with unhealed scars and resentments. Youngest brother Bailey has alienated both sister Aggie and brother Alex by parlaying his role as a grieving brother into a media career, pitching a true crime/unsolved mysteries show to a major producer. This hasn’t gone as well for him as hoped. The story opens as he reconnects with Aggie and Alex over a surprising discovery. He has a videotape from a security camera at a nature preserve which appears to show Joanne the day she vanished. Bizarrely, the footage seems to loop many times over while the timecode stamp clearly shows the minutes and seconds ticking by normally. And Joanne looks a little different each time she appears.

Naturally this is everyone’s cue to venture out to the location, a forest near the Bay of Fundy, a body of water with some of the most powerful tidal activity in the world. Keating makes positively brilliant use of the geography of the area to evoke a sense of looming dread. There are things in this forest, just not the kinds of things you’d expect. Without revealing too much about what our characters confront in this haunted wilderness, suffice it to say the story called to mind some of the nature-themed horror of filmmaker Ben Wheatley, particularly his films A Field in England and In the Earth. There’s a similar hallucinatory quality to the way Keating’s characters come to realize that time, space, and reality itself are malleable things, and that forgiveness and redemption only come from committing to permanent change. Written with passion and heart and very real fear, Agony’s Lodestone is a fever dream of a debut that will pull you all the way in.