Review: What Stalks Among Us - Sarah Hollowell
Updated: Nov 13
Genre: Young Adult Horror
Published: Clarion Books, September 2023 My Rating: 2/5 stars
Although YA-horror isn’t my typical genre, every once in a while a synopsis intrigues me enough to step outside my comfort zone and give it a try regardless. Sometimes that leads to new favourites, sometimes it leads to disappointment. Unfortunately, this was the latter.
Allow me to pull out the good-old Good-Bad-and-Ugly-format again for this one, as I somehow feel it applies.
Two teenagers find themselves trapped in a corn-maze without an end. They cannot remember how long they’ve been here, or how they’ve ended up in this situation in the first place. Soon however, they discover they aren’t alone in the maze as bodies begin to appear amongst the cornstalks. Bodies that look identical to them, killed in various violent ways… Are they body-doubles? Previous iterations of themselves, who’s wrong turns cost them dearly? And more importantly: who else is with them in the maze, dealing these deadly blows?
What Stalks Among Us wastes absolutely no time to hook you into an tense mystery from page one. The narrative plunges you in in medias res, trusting the reader to get their feet under them in time to follow along with the story. I truly appreciate when an author trusts its audience enough to do this, in favour of overexplaining a back-story and detailing out the “rules of a world” in long exposition.
Many important themes are addressed, including friendship, mental health, bodily difference and the various lesser-known ways an abusive relationship can manifest. Although I think the author does so with varying degrees of success (see the Ugly section), I appreciate them taking on these topics.
One of my favourite aspects to the story though, has to be the friendship between Logan and Sadie; they're supportive, positive and have great banter together. Their friendship reads like one that has had time to form over time before we meet them, which is difficult to write, but the author nails this dynamic between them.
Many of the novels problems are the logical flipside to its strengths. For one: it’s lack of explanations can be quite confusing, and the start of the novel feels incredibly abrupt, without any proper build-up. As a result, the pacing throughout the middle feels uneven in comparison, especially once the plot becomes inevitably repetitive (considering the element of time-loops and redo’s).
Second, the novel requires a lot of suspension of disbelieve, and “trusting the author” from its readers. I’m not talking about the supernatural elements of the maze, but more so the lack of internal logic that seems at play here. Throughout the story, we see Sadie and Logan slowly solve pieces of the maze’s puzzle, using logic and what they call their “maze-intuition”. I’m not completely sure what the author was aiming for with this, but it often became a device to move the plot along in ways that didn’t feel completely earned. I love when characters solve clues and mysteries using their intelligence, but the conclusions that Logan and Sadie draw based off their “maze-intuition” do not follow logically from what came before. As such, this intuition often feels like the author whispering the right answer in the characters ears, just to move the plot along.
Speaking of the plots; apart from these non-sequesters, there are quite a few plotholes and questions unanswered.
I’m likely voicing the unpopular opinion here, but representation has always been is such a vital element of my reviews that I have to mention it. Representation has become “trendy” in recent years, and although that’s done a lot of good, there’s a shadow-side to it too. This book falls into two pitfalls I see often, and want to point out.
This book is marketed heavily as having LGBTQ and BIPOC representation. Although yes, Logan is East-Asian and Sadie is described as bisexual, neither are every shown to page, or have any bearing on the plot. Sadie’s only shown relationship is a heterosexual one, and if the paragraph where she declares herself bisexual had been cut, nothing about the story would’ve been different. The same goes for Logans ethnicity, which is never brought up, other than in aesthetic descriptors. This isn’t good representation; it’s doing the bare minimum to appeal to a trend, and doesn’t benefit the affected minorities.
2. The one form of representation that the author truly does seem to care about, is the fat-representation, and to me, it was very grating. Hear me out here:
There’s a difference between representation and activism. In my opinion; that distinction was lost here, and it took away from the power of the message.
Sadie isn’t allowed to be a fat girl, just existing on page. She is made into a vessel for fat-activism, monologuing in extremely forced ways about systemic fat-phobia and the world not being adapted to “people of size”. Yes, she also hits all the keywords that are only actually used in the fat-activism movement in each and every conversation. Making these conversations so rehearsed, so SJW-correct and so abrasively in-your-face, takes away from relatability the power that recognizing yourself on page.
The novel is guilty of using “quasi-intelligent wording popularized by social media” in order to sound more profound than it is. It’s in the fat-activism-talk, but also in the very blatant presence of “therapy-speak”. When discussing relationships, words like “emotional abuse”, “sociopath”, “narcissist” and “gaslighting” are used, often not in their proper context. Two of those are actual psychiatric diagnoses, and we shouldn’t normalize teen-characters throwing around terms like this, or diagnosing their peers without a medical background. Abuse and mental illness are very important themes to discuss, but we shouldn’t harm the discussion by using loaded terms like this outside of their proper context.
Please note that all opinions here are mine, and you’re completely entitled to yours. if this was your favourite book of the year: I’m happy you loved it, and would love to peacefully agree to disagree with you.
You can find this book here on Goodreads