After striking out on her own as a teen mom, Madi Price is forced to return to her hometown of Brandywine, Virginia, with her seventeen-year-old daughter. With nothing to her name, she scrapes together a living as a palm reader at the local farmers market.
It’s there that she connects with old high school flame Henry McCabe, now a reclusive local fisherman whose infant son, Skyler, went missing five years ago. Everyone in town is sure Skyler is dead, but when Madi reads Henry’s palm, she’s haunted by strange and disturbing visions that suggest otherwise. As she follows the thread of these visions, Madi discovers a terrifying nightmare waiting at the center of the labyrinth—and it’s coming for everyone she holds dear.
What Kind of Mother begins in very familiar territory: a single mom forced by circumstances to return to her hometown in shame, an old flame with a tragic backstory reappears, and they find solace in each other’s trauma. Heck, we’re halfway to a Hallmark romcom already.
Hallmark is unlikely to option Clay Mcleod Chapman’s book, however. Very unlikely.
The problem is that Henry, the beautiful and haunted ex is, well, haunted. His wife committed suicide and Skyler, their infant boy, went missing at the same time. Over the past five years, he’s become a husk of a man, doing odd jobs to pay the bills and putting up missing posters. Madi, our plucky heroine, is experiencing her own kind of loss, as her teenage daughter is now living with her preciously absent dad. Madi lives in a trashy motel room and gives palm readings to the locals.
But when she takes Henry’s hand, there’s something more there than Madi reading a mark. Madi senses something, plunging the reader into the first of many eery, lyrical passages in which we seem to see through Skyler’s eyes, and suddenly Madi is sure that she can do it. She can find Skyler, heal Henry’s broken heart, and maybe live happily ever after.
But this ain’t that kind of book.
It’s hard to talk about What Kind of Mother without giving away a plot that unfolds like Greek tragedy filtered through a late night spookfest as narrated by Sam Shepard (sfx by Ray Harryhausen). But the novel moves us through its comfortably familiar setup into a devastating and harrowing story of loss, and then, right when you think you know where you stand, hits you with some of the most effectively surreal horror I’ve read in some time.
What Kind of Mother is, finally, a creature feature, with one the most haunting and viscerally disturbing monsters ever to reach the page, but it’s also a meditation on parenthood and familial love, and how both of those things can, from a certain angle, look a lot like horror stories. And it’s also a meditation on stories, their power, and their dangers.
There are also crabs. Many, many crabs.
What Kind of Mother is a story beautifully and brutally told, that takes such enormous risks both in terms of plot and language, that you’ll be sitting with it for a long time to come, but you’ll also be drawn in immediately, as soon as Chapman, through Madi, first speaks the novel’s leitmotif: Give me your hand. Do it, reader. You’re in the hands of a master.