With the recent gale of ‘Twilight-mania’ that swept across the genre of teenage (and adult) fiction, it’s kind of an inevitable mind-track to think of vampires when the words ‘supernatural’; ‘high school’; and ‘small country village’ are combined. However, James Dawson makes a very successful detour from this assumed trajectory, as he pits the darker points of English history and folklore against modern-day British schoolchildren, (whilst blithely acknowledging the potential comparison when one of his characters sarcastically describes the village of Hollow Pike as the ‘Forks of Yorkshire’).
Dawson’s debut novel narrates the story of Liz London, a 15-year-old schoolgirl moving to the rural Yorkshire village of Hollow Pike to begin a new life with her older sister, away from the bullies who haunted her past. Yet the move does not get off to the smooth start Liz hoped for, as, from the beginning, she is plagued by horrific nightmares set in the surroundings of her new home.
The focal point of the story is the local secondary school, where Liz is immediately sucked into the strict yet invisible social hierarchy dominating teenage life. Amidst the daunting task of finding her place in this new environment, Liz’s life is complicated by strange and disturbing goings-on in the woods and village around her. The creepy events all relate to her nightmares, which are becoming increasingly realistic and disturbing as Liz uncovers local tales of witchcraft and murder. She discovers that Hollow Pike is on the site of a witches’ graveyard, which soon after her arrival starts living up to its gruesome reputation.
But what is really going on? As Liz seeks an answer to this question (which involves witches, cults and the mysterious Righteous Protectors) she faces the supernatural against the average teenage backdrop of love, friendship and normality, in a gripping coming-of-age novel which shows the struggle inherent in discovering who you really are.
The novel flows incredibly well and draws the reader in, both through the suspense of the story’s twists and turns (you really want to know what’s going on) and by the strength of its characters. All of Dawson’s creations are distinctive, strong personalities who bounce off one-another remarkably well, and in many cases it is their interaction which drives the story. Happily the ending to the novel is also highly satisfying, as it ties up the numerous threads to the tale effectively.
An important side-line to the story is how people choose to portray themselves, and the differences between what we show ourselves as and who we really are; that appearances and first impressions can be deceptive. I would argue that this is as relevant for the book itself as it is for the characters in Dawson’s novel. The blurb portrays the novel as a horror story, an initial impression supported by the first chapter which is a graphic account of Liz’s recurring nightmares. However, this initial impression does not do the book justice, and may confuse / deter its readership: those looking for a true horror novel will be disappointed, and those who would otherwise thoroughly enjoy it may be deterred by the image it presents.
Nevertheless, I can with hindsight appreciate why Dawson has chosen to do this. Much of the story hinges on suspense and the unknown, and in putting the reader in the same position as his protagonist, we feel that bit more involved in the story and can more readily empathise with his characters. Whilst effective in this respect, I would nevertheless still question whether it was a good move.
Overall however, Hollow Pike is a successful, very well written and gripping debut novel, full of interesting twists and turns which make you determined to discover what Hollow Pike’s secret is all about.