Research is a tricky thing in fiction, particularly when it comes to genre stories. Lean on it too hard and the subject of your fascination, all your digging, can start to make the book feel like a lecture. Pull away from it too much, and the reader can be left feeling like they’re in unsteady hands, following a storyteller who’s not just making up the narrative as they go along, but glancing over the details of the world they’re trying to build. But in the right hands, a depth of knowledge and a breadth of juicy research can bear luxuriant, addictive fruit. With Black River Orchard, Chuck Wendig pours years of his own love of apples (as any follower of his social media accounts knows very well) into a dark jewel of a book, a sprawling folk horror epic about the things we sow, the things we reap, and the dark side of every American harvest.
In the small town of Harrow, Dan Paxson is primed to turn his family’s fortunes around. With a small orchard of just seven apple trees, Dan believes he’s raised up the perfect fruit, a beautiful, addictive apple his daughter Calla has named “The Ruby Slipper.” Soon, the whole town is talking about Dan’s apple crop, buying up Ruby Slippers by the bag, turning Dan’s long trend of family suffering into fortune seemingly overnight.
But the Ruby Slipper’s history, as well as its cultivation, brings more than new flavor to Harrow. As the residents of the town start to experience new bounty and beauty to rival the orchard itself, dark secrets emerge, secrets that only a woman who just arrived in town, and an apple hunter with a dark past named John Compass, seem primed to unearth. Something strange is happening out in that orchard, and it’s got very deep, very dark roots.
As with his previous horror novel, the towering Book of Accidents, Wending lays out a beautifully structured narrative web of multiple points-of-view, time periods, and story threads, weaving a tapestry through inviting prose and memorable characters in which readers will get happily lost. In a narrative that spans 600 pages, Wendig builds a series of deeply personal stakes for a lineup of people who are all caught in the strange shadows of Harrow’s past, then shows us how they intertwine, like a tree with branches that are all feeding each other, all reaching for the same goal. And, like The Book of Accidents, Wendig shows patience in cultivating this tree, letting it evolve and shift with the seasons, pruning it just so, always making sure it’s primed for maximum beauty and maximum emotional punch.
There are a lot of agricultural metaphors in this review, not just because the book is about an orchard, but because Wendig’s approach to weaving a dread-filled folk-horror web about magic apples is so immersive that you’ll come away from it wanting to plant an orchard of your own. Wendig’s love of apples—their history, their complexity, the ways in which they’re cultivated and even rescued from extinction by apple hunters and careful growers—permeates the entire book without making Black River Orchard feel overwhelmed with dry botanical detail. Instead, the mystique of his subject shines through, as his prose imbues each description of an apple, each sketch of a growing technique or piece of American agricultural history, with powerful, juicy, nourishing life. It’s one of those books that will leave you itching to taste its descriptions, and might even send you running out for some nonfiction books on the history of apples along the way.
But as with the story of the orchard itself, something deeper and darker lurks in these pages, something that imbues Black River Orchard with an added layer of complex, simmering bite. The horror that Wendig unspools in these pages is a rich tapestry of folk horror with notes of body horror and historical horror for good measure, and beneath all the memorable images of terror lurks something even stranger, more universal, and more frightening. With this book, Wendig has told a distinctly American story about what it means to live in this place, built on blood and wounds and theft and a million other sins, all somehow encapsulated by that fruit of Biblical sin, the apple. It’s one of the year’s most rewarding horror books, and like the fruits at the core of its story, will have you craving every turn of the page.
Black River Orchard is available now.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.