in Books

Book Review: Brian McGreevy’s “Hemlock Grove” Is Meh

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Remember that little article I wrote a week ago about Netflix’s upcoming original series, and how I much I was anticipating the gory, filthy, goddamn horror show that producer Eli Roth is (hopefully) about to bring upon us all?

Apparently, I was excited enough to devour Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove in the space of less than two days. Yeah, that’s right, I sped my way through an entire book instead of babysitting it like I always do with novels (even the ones I legitimately love, which, by the way, is not how I feel about McGreevy’s creation).

The basic premise is that when the bodies of young women are found brutally mauled in the fictional town of Hemlock Grove, two seventeen year old boys – Peter Rumancek and Roman Godfrey – become prime suspects for their murders. They partner up to discover who the true killer is. There are werewolves, upir (a vampire of Russian folklore), and a bunch of other hijinks going on throughout the novel while they do their sleuthing.

What McGreevy’s got going for him is that Hemlock Grove is a pretty easy and relatively fun read. He knows how to write amusing dialogue, and he’s got a good grasp on his characters’ different voices.

He gives us a pretty big cast of characters, but it was Shelley and Letha Godfrey, and in some respects, Peter Rumancek, that kept me reading. Their characterizations and personalities are by far the best: layered and endearing, at times hilarious.

But oh, how this book dripped with pretentiousness. McGreevy is very, very fond of stringing together long winded sentences to airily describe something that probably could have been summed up in two lines or less.

He also overdid it with the “symbolism” (read: random endless insertions of the same three or four symbols over and over and over again). Yeah dude, we get it, the book is set in Pennsylvania, but not everyone and their dragons has to walk around in a Steelers jersey. I caught that Ouroboros represents a big theme in the book – the cyclicality of life and rebirth, of repeated mistakes, ‘we have been here before and we will be here again,’ blah blah blah – the first time you mentioned it. There’s only so much of “It was a picture of a snake… a snake eating its own tail,” that a reader can take.

For the most part, the book reads like it’s in third person, and then a sentence structured in first person here and there would remind you that it’s actually being narrated by an unknown person who is somehow omniscient but still involved and interacting with the other characters. Every time one of these sentences came along, it was so jarring that I was thrown out of the world he was building.

And then there were asides like “The women of the audience may want to close their eyes now,” right before a supposedly violent scene, which is just plain rude. Really dude? There’s hardly a gruesome scene on screen that can even get me to avert my eyes anymore, and if there was anything that could, your half-assed paragraph-sized description of minimal violence definitely ain’t it.

Way to alienate a good portion of your audience with your blatant sexism, McGreevy.

Speaking of sexism, there’s heaps of it here, though it’s infrequent enough that I could power through and onto the better parts of the novel. There’s also racism sprinkled throughout; McGreevy casually describes people being “as baffled as a Chinaman,” among other things.

Though I guess the argument could be made that such descriptions were made not by the author himself, but by the unknown, unreliable, and somehow omniscient narrator. That distiction wasn’t made clear enough for me to give the guy a pass.

Speaking strictly in terms of genre and style of writing, however, Hemlock Grove is a bit of a failure. The mystery itself was alright. I didn’t think it was too obvious who the killer was, and though hints were sprinkled liberally enough that I pieced it together by the end of the first third of the book, there was still enough doubt for me to be surprised (and super accomplished) when I was right. Seriously, there was fist pumping involved.

There was nothing remotely horrifying presented, except for the werewolf transformation,which was admittedly pretty cool. The rest of McGreevy’s attempts at horror-esque overtones seemed more like afterthoughts rather than an integral part of the story; the execution didn’t live up to the potential that his plot line presented.

I give it three stars for entertaining me during what would have been otherwise been a boring weekend, but with the weakness of the writing and the obvious need for the novel to have gone through several editing processes before publishing, I can’t give it any higher a rating than that.

3-stars-out-of-5