The Well was my introduction to indie published horror and assuaged any fears I had that excellent horror could be independently produced. I’ve since discovered that in addition to authoring an amazing novel, Peter Labrow is friendly, approachable – and patient! It was weeks, if not a month or more ago, that I first mentioned to him my intent to write a review. Peter, please consider this my Winter Solstice gift to you! I’d like to remind everyone that it is possible to give e-books as gifts via Amazon!
Note: There are some mild spoilers scattered throughout.
On the outskirts of Bankside, the old Whitaker estate stands in ruins. The well has been capped with a metal grating, but the grating is in nearly as much disrepair as the “overgrown, crumbling” wall surrounding the estate. Not that it matters, since it is the legends that keep people away, not the wall. Although the place gives Becca the creeps, she goes there to be “properly alone” with Matt, who is both her stepbrother and her boyfriend. A flirtatious kiss on the well plunges the two of them into the dank water.
The Well, by Peter Labrow, could have been entirely focused on Becca’s experience of being injured and trapped in an abandoned well. The descriptions of her hunger, the lurid detail of how she manages her bodily functions, the horror of sitting with a corpse, and the torment of a vengeful spirit provides more than enough material for a satisfying ‘hit’ of dark fiction. Had Labrow chosen to keep his focus narrow, The Well would have been very, very good. Instead, Labrow seamlessly combines a cornucopia of horror that takes a broader, more frightening look at the evils of our world. The Well isn’t very, very good: it’s better than that. Labrow’s novel is a close call with a dark fiction overdose. The Well is a horror aficionado’s wicked good time.
Claustrophobia, pedophilia, supernatural malevolence, and relationships strained by extraordinary circumstances: The Well has uses all of these themes to examine the effect lies have on people. Becca and Matt would not have been in their predicament if Becca had not lied to her mother and her friend Hannah about her whereabouts. It’s unlikely they would have been together at the well if Matt had not lied about being a virgin, especially if Becca knew “the one girl he’d had sex with… didn’t exactly qualify as willing.” The supernatural cycle of the novel also is based in lies. Ages ago, when the Whitaker estate was still occupied, the Bankside apothecary’s wife lied to her husband as to the nature of how she knew the Whitaker witch was murdering children. In the modern day, the descendant of the apothecary’s wife lies to her young daughter when a vivid dream presages the reoccurrence of the Whitaker curse upon their lineage.
Granted, how is a mother supposed to tell her eight-year old daughter that it is their place to allow the sacrifice of an innocent? It is also true that if the apothecary’s wife hadn’t lied, she would have been branded a witch and slaughtered along with the Whitakers. Few condone date rape, and many wouldn’t condone premarital sex with stepsiblings, but almost everyone can understand how two hormonal sixteen year olds would lie to get a chance to make out. Therein lies a large part of the horror you feel upon reading The Well: you understand the reasoning behind the lies, you get it. Then Labrow shows you the nasty consequences of the darkness unleashed by ‘understandable’ lies.
The characters in The Well are mostly well-crafted. If you were to meet one of them in the grocery store, he or she would be indistinguishable from the ‘real’ shoppers. When Labrow characters lie, love, or feel the entire spectrum of fear, they do it convincingly – except for one character. That character is Matt’s father, Jim. Jim is presented as “decent” albeit “slightly dull,” the type of man who, even “under pressure…[is] able to think straight.” When driving to see if their kids are in danger, Jim “drove as quickly as he could but – being Jim – not irresponsibly.” Instead of just showing us Jim being Jim, the narrative resorts to telling us facts about Jim. The scenes with Jim break the flow of the story, making me conscious of the fact that I am, after all, reading. This is a minor quibble; the other characters, especially the pedophile crossing-guard, are almost uncomfortably human.
What interests me about Jim is that he seems to be the only male character in The Well who is not a womanizing bully, cheater, drunk, or aspiring rapist. Instead, Jim is the poster-boy for calm and supportive love; he makes a conscious effort to touch his wife and offer her comfort despite his own fears. Although this review is not the place for an in depth analysis of any one facet of the novel, I think a book club would find a veritable treasure trove of discussion solely around the topic of gender and sexuality presented in The Well.
If The Well is about the consequences of lying, it is in equal measure a book about the dynamics of relationships. Labrow presents several types of relationships, all at varying stages of intimacy, and each with their own set of problems. However, he doesn’t limit the narrative to examining only personal relationships. As with the choice to expand the work beyond just the events that take place within the well, Labrow expands the type of relationships he examines beyond everyday romance and friendship. Labrow orchestrates situations to examine a variety of interactions including the relationship of the accursed to the innocent; the relationship of a trusting community to a predatory school employee; and the relationship of police to possible suspects. The question of individual responsibility to a group or community is an understated yet dynamic theme in the novel. What is truly notable is that at no point does the weightiness of the questions posed drag down the story or interrupt the immediacy of the characters’ panic and fear.
The Well is a multifaceted, thematically rich horror novel you don’t want to miss!