From Bram Stoker Award–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a chilling novel about three childhood friends who miraculously survive the night everyone in their suburban neighborhood turned into ghosts—perfect for fans of Yellowjackets.
The Velkwood Vicinity was the topic of occult theorists, tabloid one-hour documentaries, and even some pseudo-scientific investigations as the block of homes disappeared behind a near-impenetrable veil that only three survivors could enter—and only one has in the past twenty years, until now.
Talitha Velkwood has avoided anything to do with the tragedy that took her mother and eight-year-old sister, drifting from one job to another, never settling anywhere or with anyone, feeling as trapped by her past as if she was still there in the small town she so desperately wanted to escape from. When a new researcher tracks her down and offers to pay her to come back to enter the vicinity, Talitha claims she’s just doing it for the money. Of all the crackpot theories over the years, no one has discovered what happened the night Talitha, her estranged, former best friend Brett, and Grace, escaped their homes twenty years ago. Will she finally get the answers she’s been looking for all these years, or is this just another dead end?
Award-winning author Gwendolyn Kiste has created a suburban ghost story about a small town that trapped three young women who must confront the past if they’re going to have a future.
First and foremost, a HUGE thank you to the folks at NetGalley and Saga Press for the eARC!
A convergence of the past and present, Gwendolyn Kiste’s latest novel, The Haunting of Velkwood begs the question, “What does it mean to be a ghost?” Of course, the textbook answer to this question stems from the image of a literal specter, an apparition from the past that follows one around. More importantly, ghosts are the manifestations of reminders, the physical entity that does not let you forget the past. With this story, Kiste proves ghosts can take many shapes and forms, maybe even your own self.
The subdivision now known as The Velkwood Vicinity has stood “vacant” for years behind some unknown force that keeps the general public out. However, previous childhood residents Talitha, Brett, and Grace seem to be the only living people able to cross its threshold, for what reason, we aren’t sure. There’s a lot to be understood about this strange occurrence, the formation of such a barrier twenty years ago that has seemingly preserved this neighborhood in metaphorical amber. Enter the slew of researchers who are desperate for answers and are willing to approach Talitha and crew for help. Despite all the years she has spent avoiding her childhood residence, Talitha decides to take this research crew up on their offer and re-enter Velkwood. What she finds is something no one can predict, something quite haunting.
While this is the first work of Kiste’s I’ve read, I can easily say it will not be the last. Her prose carried an air of effortless elegance as I found myself stopping to reread lines again and again. The talent in her writing alone stole my attention only for her very genuine characterization to steal the show. Talitha is a very relatable character in the sense that she desperately wants to leave the past in the past when we first meet her. She doesn’t come across as someone who wants to rock the proverbial boat, yet she decides to face the music anyway. In doing so, we learn so much more about not only Talitha, but the people of Velkwood, those she regards warmly and those she does not.
There’s a certain brilliance in Kiste’s approach to handling the strangeness of The Velkwood Vicinity and the great idea it stands to represent: confines. While the neighborhood has literally been off-limits to many for years, even on the inside, the life Talitha and her friends knew as children was defined by what was considered acceptable. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) levels of judgement, expectations, and farces typically associated with the suburbs reigned supreme in Velkwood, leaving plenty of room for hidden secrets, trauma, and darkness. While modern horror fiction has been ripe with new takes on haunted houses, Kiste’s exploration into a haunted neighborhood is largely original and markedly creative. The juxtaposition of such a setting as the ideal neighborhood of Velkwood to the dark truths that fuel the veil separating this world from ours was a perfect personification of a cognitive dissonance of sorts. This is a story that taps into what it really feels like to be labeled as “other” within a supposed picturesque setting, the deeper experience of yearning to break free of the confines set around you.
Most impressively, Kiste accurately depicts how it feels to grow as a teenage girl into adulthood from the complexities of relationships, finding who you truly are, and the decision to embrace authenticity in the face of rejection. The Yellowjackets comp for this book is very legitimate for these reasons as both stories encapsulate the struggles of growing as a woman. We can also talk about the immaculate 90s/early 2000s vibes this story manages to harness (I LIVED for that “Ode To My Family” literary needle drop). Not only do we read about Talitha, Grace, and Brett’s experience related to Velkwood as adults, but we also spend a sizeable time in the past working to understand just how the hell we ended up here. How do you end up haunted by your former self, your former home?
The Haunting of Velkwood succeeds in numerous ways, but most of all, it triumphs in telling a story characterized by heart and acceptance. On a very surface level, this novel reads like an episode of The X Files full of eerie paranormal happenings and a firm desire to get to the bottom of what’s causing this veil to exist around Velkwood. On a much deeper level, Gwendolyn Kiste has crafted a story that details the confines of expectations, a reckoning with (what feels like) a sentient childhood, and most importantly the decision to embrace authenticity in the face of rejection.
The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste releases on March 5, 2024 from Saga Press.