"The Hollow Tree" Book Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Published by Titan Books
Written by James Brogden
2018, 483 pages, fiction
Released on March 13th, 2018
The Hollow Tree is a story about folklore, and how the power of belief can shape the world in surprising ways. This is made explicitly clear at the outset, when we learn of the corpse of a young woman found in a hollow oak tree at the end of the Second World War. No one knows who she was or how she died, and the mystery of the corpse invites all manner of speculation. The speculation coalesces into three separate narratives, and the stories give rise to something strange in the land of the dead.
In the present, Rachel Cooper is a young woman who suffers a terrible boating accident and loses her left hand. As she suffers through recovery and therapy, she discovers something strange: she is able to reach into the “umbra,” the spirit world, with her (literal) phantom limb. Stranger still, she can pull things out of that shadow world into the living one—though every time she does it comes at a cost.
Strange dreams plague Rachel, centered on a girl trapped alive inside a dead oak tree. Eventually she learns of the legend of “Oak Mary,” of whom three distinct tales are told: she was either a Roma woman murdered by her jealous husband; a Nazi double-agent killed when her cover was blown; or a prostitute killed by a sadistic John. When Rachel’s investigations lead her to the former site of the “Mary Oak,” she reaches into the umbra and pulls the spirit of Oak Mary into the world of the living. Two problems quickly arise: first, the woman doesn’t remember who she actually is; and second, three spirit-beings—given form by the three potential deaths from the Oak Mary legends—follow her into the living world, each determined to prove their ownership over Mary and her identity.
James Brogden tells the linked stories of Rachel and Mary (and Mary’s alter-egos) deftly, though this tale is as much about tales themselves as it is about people. Narrative, in the world Brogden creates, inspires belief, and belief directly affects the spiritual world. The beings that pursue Mary are not truly the people credited with her deaths: they’re spirits given shape by the stories told of her. Unraveling the mystery of Mary’s identity proves key to defeating the spirits, and Rachel, whose phantom limb gives her the power to fight back against these beings, is the only one able to solve it.
The notion that folklore—the forms of expressive culture that all of us engage in every single day—actually has supernatural potential is an intriguing one, and Brogden uses it to good effect. The novel moves along at a good clip and seldom feels gimmicky. Rachel’s no-nonsense approach to her predicament is refreshing if somewhat unbelievable in itself, and the characters are interesting and well-drawn, if not especially dynamic. The tone of the book is something like Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas novels, only set in the UK, complete with smug witticisms and matter-of-fact proclamations about the nature of life and death and afterlife. But it all hangs together quite well, making for a fun and tightly-paced supernatural romp. Just don’t expect any scares: this is decidedly not a horror novel. Instead it falls into that still more nebulous category of supernatural thriller (or perhaps supernatural mystery), and has more in common with The Twilight Zone than with The Blair Witch Project or The Shining or other unambiguously “scary” stories. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, and The Hollow Tree is a fun, engaging read.