Taryn planned for an easy out and back hike into the Sawtooth Mountains to scatter her wife’s ashes. Gemma had been the outdoorsy type, while Taryn preferred the city, though an alpine lake at the end of the trail held a special place for them both. They had spent time together there in that forest, Gemma spinning campfire tales of the things that made a home in the dark. Little did Taryn know that when she entered those mountains to fulfill her final marital duty, she would be in for the fight of her life against a supernatural predator known as the Sawtooth . And the Sawtooth was no legend…
A big, big thank you to the author and Cemetery Gates for sending me an advanced copy!
Clocking in at under 120 pages, Steph Nelson manages to produce a captivating story in her latest, Sawtooth. This novella is marketed as a creature feature, but Nelson manages to squeeze in plenty of horror with heart within these confines. Taryn sets out to scatter her wife’s ashes. We don’t know what led to the death of her wife, only that despite their opposing views on the outdoors, Taryn is dedicated to ensuring that Gemma’s final resting place is in one of the places she loved the most. However, the silly campfire tale Taryn initially disregarded seems to be an all too real threat now that she is alone in the wilderness. This seems like a story of survival and grit; while that may be true, Sawtooth explores much deeper territory as Taryn fights for herself and the love she still clings to for Gemma.
I reviewed Nelson’s debut novel, The Vein, a few months ago and was immensely impressed by her writing style and delivery. Horror stories centered on grief and loss have been published by the dozen this year, some of the same themes and ideas being explored again and again. Yet, as was with The Vein, Nelson invents a fresh take on the ever-relatable sense of loss and love we all feel as human beings. Above all, the best aspect of her work is empathy and reality. Her characters are fleshed out and authentic, something that only deepens the sense of legitimacy of grief despite the supernatural odds they may be facing.
Without going into too much detail to avoid spoilers, the story focuses on Taryn in the present day navigating the wilderness to scatter Gemma’s ashes in addition to exploring the events that led up to Gemma’s death. The circumstances surrounding the loss of Gemma are incredibly tragic and prove to be a large point of contention between Taryn and Gemma. This conflict they face is one born of love and refusal to accept the inevitable end they are facing as a couple. Yet, the present timeline presents a nuanced twist. Taryn battles the Sawtooth in a very literal and physical sense, but there is also a manifestation of the loss of Gemma implemented within this very real monster.
In general, creature features tend to cater to the desire to be entertained; when I pick one up, I feel as though I’ll be treated to some imaginative monsters, some creative means of survival, and possibly some attachment to the characters who find themselves in this particular conflict. The sawtooth creature itself is original in its appearance and function; while the creature has rows of teeth and delivers bloody kills to woodland creatures, it cannot see. The main driving instinct of the sawtooth is its detection of blood, those who are already damaged. Much like grief, this creature can capitalize on the already wounded, turning an injured individual into a certain death. The illustrative effects of loss and the manifestation of Gemma’s demise as the sawtooth creature itself was nothing short of gripping, elevating this story into a whole new monster in and of itself.
Simultaneously entertaining and poignant, Sawtooth presents one of the most creative takes on a creature feature I have encountered. Easily read in one sitting, this novella revels in the messiness of love and coming to terms with the eventual loss of those we hold dearest. My time spent with Taryn and Gemma may have been brief, but their story will last in my mind for the foreseeable future. Covering so much territory in so few pages, Steph Nelson’s creativity shines, instilling the idea that she is an instant-read author.
Sawtooth officially releases one week from today on November 21, 2023.