The Plague Stones by James Brogden
Titan, pb, £7.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Toby’s life has completely turned around. After a violent break-in that left him in hospital, his mother has inherited a large cottage in the idyllic and historic community of Haleswell. It’s a chance at a fresh start. The only stipulation of the inheritance is that once a year they have to open their garden to the public to attend a traditional service at the boundary stone in their back garden. Nothing could be simpler.
But when Toby and his parents start seeing a girl who vanishes into thin air, they realise the annual service at the boundary stone is not just a quaint little tradition. The boundary stones mark how close outsiders and the infected were allowed to come to Haleswell during the Black Death. If the tradition of marking the boundaries is not completed annually, then the spirits of those who died of the plague are free to wreak their revenge on the descendants of those who denied them help all those centuries ago.
Stuck in the middle of this battle of the ages, is the Feenan family, 14-year-old Toby and his parents, Trish and Peter. An ordinary family who are unlucky enough to inherit a house with a boundary stone in its garden, everything about their situation is alien for them, from their sudden financial stability and the social circles they are forced to move in. They have strengths and weaknesses, and work together as a family, to overcome their situation.
Brogden tells the story through two timelines, one for Hester in the past, and the other in the present. By doing this, we can explore Hester’s motivations, moving her away from a one-dimensional evil figure. On the one hand, we understand her beliefs, she wanted hospitality as set out in the Bible, but with hindsight, we also know that it won’t save the infected. We sympathise with her while also not wanting her to succeed in her murderous desires.
The present timeline is equally as rich in its emotional depth. Richard Nash, the human antagonist wants to keep the people of Haleswell safe from Hester, a position of responsibility he finds himself in because of his birth. While we might not agree with his actions, his motivation in this area is pure. He forces us to ask what we would do in the same situation. We want him to succeed because of the innocents under his care, but that leaves a bitter taste in our mouths because in every other aspect of his life he is a reprehensible character.
There is a theme of the Have’s and the Have Not’s that run through both timelines. The affluence of Haleswell that Toby first sees is skin deep, and he and his parents become aware of a privilege divide that they are uncomfortably on the Have’s side. The parallels between the two remind us as the reader that certain elements of society haven’t changed for hundreds of years despite the radical social upheaval the Black Death caused. My favourite line of the book comes from a teacher who says;
“You know all those films about survivors in a post-apocalyptic society? Well, you’re living in one, just a few hundred years after the fact.”
It puts the story into context. A few hundred years later and people still do unbelievably cruel things out of fear.
Which leads to another element which must be mentioned. This is a horror book and it delivers in creepiness and suspense. The supernatural and ordinary human nastiness incidents build in pace and threat throughout the book, a page-turner in the very real sense of the word. It is a book of consequences for our actions, where bad deeds are done for the greater good, and little people are powerless in the face of evil. The technique Brogden employs which gives us the POV of the antagonists means the reader has no safe point to stop in reading because we know what is lying under the surface.
The Plague Stones is a clever book, in my personal top three for the year without hesitation and one I would definitely recommend to anyone who loves supernatural horror.