I discovered Wicker’s Bog by Mike Duran with a bit of digging on Amazon. I needed to find a new book to review, and I was short on time to read it, so this little novella seemed like an ideal dive into independent horror publishing. It’s a short little book, just 64 pages in length, but I hadn’t noticed just how short it was when I paid $5.99 for it. And I’ll be honest, I’ve talked to a couple indie authors who cringed at the price, but I don’t mind. Even a short book is still well worth it if I enjoy, and it still cost me less than my typical order at Sunay once I tack a drink onto the end. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is pretty straight forward: I’m not sure how much I liked Wicker’s Bog, and I’m not sure how fair that is. The author writes nice prose and has a great command of visual language, which makes it an enjoyable read, though it clips along a little too fast for my tastes. It’s more like a long short story than a short novella, but the scene is set nicely and it has the kind of gloom that I love in southern gothic stories. There’s a sunken manor house, a town with mysterious disappearances, and a history of hauntings right out of the gate, and the writer does a great job evoking that.
I was a scrappy country kid, once upon a time. I tend to like the little Scout Finches of southern dramas, and our main character is one of them. However, she’s the only character that matters. There is a brother who serves as a one-note bully, and a caregiver who is there to spout out southern lingo and remind the kids to be home by sundown.That’s still mostly okay, but I can’t discuss the characterization too much without spoiling the story. But it does tie into the first of my two more serious problems with Wicker’s Bog.
The first major problem is the mystery aspect. Mysteries are subjective, so something that’s tricky for one reader might seem bland and predictable to another. I completely accept that. What I can’t accept is how transparent the mystery element in this story is. Without spoilers, I’ll say that there is only one choice for who the culprit might be, and it’s telegraphed pretty heavily on top of it. I don’t think it ruins the story for every reader, especially since a work this length doesn’t have much time to set up alternatives and layers, and the writing itself (plus the excellent imagery) could probably soften this blow for many readers. It did for me – I still enjoyed it. But I saw it coming by a country mile.
My second concern is the story’s thematic undertone. With frequent mentions of God and a big emphasis on fate, I had a hard time not feeling like this story was pushy. That said, it’s a common thing in southern gothic. Religion has a strong grip on the south, both its characters and its writers. I’m not exactly surprised, but the methods used here irritated me. Again, it’s difficult to explain in-depth without spoiling the story, but the main character’s ending thoughts had me rolling my eyes. If you’re like me and came from an abusive religious background, you might want to skip this one.
I don’t want to seem excessively harsh just because the story has a Christian slant. There is a lot of good here. The writing is solid, the pacing is nice, and the climax is pretty thrilling. I think the author is an excellent writer, and many of the problems vanish if you read this as a ghost story, not as a mystery. The imagery took me right back to my childhood, and if you love a good spooky tale, this could be a great quick fix. But if I knew about the Christian theming from the start, I would have looked elsewhere.