The Book of the Baku by R.L. Boyle
Titan, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
When Sean moves in with his grandfather, he isn’t sure what to expect. Sean doesn’t know his grandfather as his mother fell out with him years before. All he knows is his grandfather is a children’s author. Exploring his grandfather’s publications, Sean discovers The Book of the Baku, a collection of short stories about the legend of the Baku, a creature that eats the nightmares of children then uses them to kill the child. Sean believes the Baku is fictional until it begins stalking him. His grandfather can’t help; he’s under the control of the Baku – and unless he can conquer his own fears, Sean will be next.
The Book of the Baku is a character-driven story told from Sean’s point of view. We experience his present day as he navigates grief of his mother’s death and his new home with an old man he doesn’t know, as well as his past and the events leading up to his mother’s death which has left him mute. He’s only fourteen years old and from a deprived neighbourhood, but he has retained his caring nature and artistic streak and caring nature, despite the difficulties life has thrown at him. He is an instantly likeable yet unreliable narrator. His inability to speak hints at the secrets he doesn’t want to admit even to himself.
For me, the horror works on two levels. Boyle takes the concept of the home and twists it. Home should be the place where a character feels safe. When Sean arrives at his grandfather’s house, it is welcoming and cosy with good food and a beautiful garden. But as the story progresses, the house falls under the influence of the Baku, spreading steadily from his grandfather’s writing shed and into the house. His grandfather becomes an alcoholic and violent, incapable of recognising Sean at times. But then the home Sean left behind isn’t much better.
Sean’s memories of his old home start the same as the new house. Sean remembers good times hanging around with his friends, playing video games, and sneaking alcohol to drink behind the local pub. But as the Baku’s influence grows, so Sean’s memories clear up with drugs and gang-related violence ruling the streets. Unfortunately, Sean has left one nightmare for another.
As a horror fan, it should be no surprise that I have read Stephen King’s IT. I was profoundly affected by IT because when I finished a chapter, I could turn on the TV and still see stories about children hurt or killed by adults. At least in IT, an ancient evil hidden under the book’s central location drives the horror. The Book of the Baku hit me in the same way. After a particularly harrowing scene where drugs and gang violence erupt into Sean’s life, a woman tells Sean about her difficulties trying to adopt a cat. Rehoming centres won’t give her a cat because of her postcode. How is it right she can raise her children in a place where she can’t even get a cat? This deprivation isn’t confined to the pages of a book; our real-life news is full of stories of children suffering due to poverty. Boyle’s snapshot into life on a deprived estate is as frightening as her fantasy horror.
The Book of the Baku is one of my favourite books from 2021. It’s a tense horror, combining fantasy with reality, exploring the impact of grief and guilt on men and women of all ages. Highly recommended.