REVIEW: Midnight is the Darkest Hour by Ashley Winstead
For fans of Verity and A Flicker in the Dark, Midnight is the Darkest Hour is a twisted tale of murder, obsessive love, and the beastly urges that lie dormant within us all…even the God-fearing folk of Bottom Springs, Louisiana. In her small hometown, librarian Ruth Cornier has always felt like an outsider, even as her beloved father rains fire-and-brimstone warnings from the pulpit at Holy Fire Baptist. Unfortunately for Ruth, the only things the townspeople fear more than the God and the Devil are the myths that haunt the area, like the story of the Low Man, a vampiric figure said to steal into sinners’ bedrooms and kill them on moonless nights. When a skull is found deep in the swamp next to mysterious carved symbols, Bottom Springs is thrown into uproar—and Ruth realizes only she and Everett, an old friend with a dark past, have the power to comb the town’s secret underbelly in search of true evil.
A dark and powerful novel like fans have come to expect from Ashley Winstead, Midnight is the Darkest Hour is an examination of the ways we’ve come to expect love, religion, and stories to save us, the lengths we have to go to in order to take back power, and the monstrous work of being a girl in this world.
Given how much I enjoy sturm und drang and good old melodrama, I am always surprised that I don’t like gothic novels more, and that Southern gothic novels, specifically, often irritate me. Gothics can feel so self-conscious and self-referential, and adding the Southern atmosphere amps up those qualities. It’s all just too much for me, usually from the start. (It doesn’t help that the typical gothic heroine is relentlessly insipid.)
This novel layers the Southern gothic atmosphere on from the first scene: our protagonist, Ruth, is part of a group of townspeople gathered to hear the sheriff declare the discovery of a human skull that shows signs of violence. There are murmurings about the Low Man (a local mythical boogeyman) and dark happenings, and attention turns to Ruth’s father, the town preacher, who seems to hold more power over the residents of Bottom Springs than any of the other men of standing in the community. He manages to whip everyone up with a rousing speech about demons walking amongst them and Christ’s deliverance.
The story is told in alternating timelines: the present, when Ruth is about 23 and the past, starting when Ruth is 17. I usually enjoy alternating timelines, but this one got confusing for me – Ruth has Dark Secrets that she keeps from her best friend Everett and I found it hard to keep track of just what secrets Ruth was keeping and when she started keeping them.
Teenaged Ruth is extremely shy and quiet, the only child of ultra-strict parents who are central casting archetypes: Preacher and Preacher’s Wife. She has a rebellious streak (well, duh) but it’s pretty well hidden. When she begins to receive attention from an older itinerant worker, Renard, Ruth’s romantic dreams (fueled by her reading of forbidden books, such as Twilight) take flight. But a secret meeting with Renard (in the swamp, the most romantic of rendezvous locations) ends very badly. Which leads to present-day Ruth thinking she knows who that skull might belong to.
The bad date with Renard also leads Ruth to a fast and intense friendship with Everett, who she previously knew simply as the town weirdo. Everett is the son of an alcoholic father; they are poor and Ever is what passes for a goth outcast in Bottom Springs. Ever teaches Ruth about the natural world around her and the wonders of the swamp (!) and on one memorable occasion sucks snake venom out of her inner thigh, which both turns Ruth on and maybe saves her life? I don’t know. Ruth’s terrible parents are disapproving of the relationship but don’t forbid it outright (not believably, given the control they have over Ruth).
From there the book gets kind of crazy with drug-dealing motorcycle gangs, secret occult groups and some vigilante shit that made me uncomfortable. Both Ruth and Ever have secrets, and also neither seem to realize or at least acknowledge the sexual tension between them for YEARS, for reasons that were unclear.
Ruth gets a condescending boyfriend in the form of a sheriff’s deputy. She continues to kowtow to her parents and doesn’t just skip Bottom Springs like she wants to at 18. This made no sense to me and honestly kind of infuriated me, though it was finally explained as being related to her Dark Secret.
As mentioned, the Southern atmosphere is ladled on heavily, with references to colorful local characters: “…Hardy Tullis-you know, that crazy fella that tries to wrestle gators?” and “Old Man Jonas” and a lower-class cadre of actual fishwives, whose husbands are employed by the major business in the area. None of it feels realistic. Nor do the main characters – while the protagonists of the author’s previous books In My Dreams I Hold a Knife and The Last Housewife where flawed but sympathetic, Ruth and Ever feel too much like a collection of cliches to ever come alive. To the degree that Ruth felt real to me, I found myself irritated with her for her unwillingness to just cut her parents off, already. When she finally does, it’s a overcorrection that leads to tragedy.
Speaking of which, the denouement features an actual lynch mob, Ruth doing very stupid things that somehow work out as planned, and an ending I really wasn’t thrilled with.
I rarely give actual bad grades to suspense books, mostly because they tend to hold my attention and I value that highly when grading. Maybe I’ve just read enough of them now that that doesn’t count for as much, or maybe I was just too annoyed with the aspects of Midnight is the Darkest Hour that annoyed me. I’m giving it a D.