A Dark and Unusual Invitation Arrives In This Excerpt From Black SheepBooks Features Rachel Harrison
Rachel Harrison has (quite rightly) earned a reputation for writing offbeat, occasionally irreverent horror featuring complex heroines and stories grounded in uniquely female-centric experiences. And her latest upcoming novel, Black Sheep, checks all those boxes in spades.
Mixing both rural and religious horror with a razor-sharp wit and thorny family dynamics, Black Sheep tells an all too familiar tale of feeling like an outsider in your own family, with a slightly demonic twist. The story follows Vesper Wright, who left her parents and her deeply religious community behind when she turned eighteen and never looked back. Six years later—and at a particularly low time in her own life—she receives a wedding invitation, to come home and watch her cousin marry the boy she left behind.
But Vesper’s homecoming isn’t everything it seems—and the dark secrets at the heart of her family and the cult-like faith the practice are only the beginning of the horrors she’ll have to face.
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
Nobody has a “normal” family, but Vesper Wright’s is truly…something else. Vesper left home at eighteen and never looked back—mostly because she was told that leaving the staunchly religious community she grew up in meant she couldn’t return. But then an envelope arrives on her doorstep.
Inside is an invitation to the wedding of Vesper’s beloved cousin Rosie. It’s to be hosted at the family farm. Have they made an exception to the rule? It wouldn’t be the first time Vesper’s been given special treatment. Is the invite a sweet gesture? An olive branch? A trap? Doesn’t matter. Something inside her insists she go to the wedding. Even if it means returning to the toxic environment she escaped. Even if it means reuniting with her mother, Constance, a former horror film star and forever ice queen.
When Vesper’s homecoming exhumes a terrifying secret, she’s forced to reckon with her family’s beliefs and her own crisis of faith in this deliciously sinister novel that explores the way family ties can bind us as we struggle to find our place in the world.
Black Sheep won’t hit shelves until September 19, but we’re happy to be able to give you a sneak peek at its story, as heroine Vesper discovered an unexpected invitation on her doorstep.
I climbed the hill up to my apartment building. It wasn’t far, about a ten-minute walk, but I was work worn after a double shift, my feet blistered, my head pounding; my back, my shoulders, my neck, my joints all squealing. The exhaustion bore down on me, making the hill seem steeper than usual.
The air was like a membrane—viscous, thick with humidity—and the heat hadn’t relented. I soured like milk left out on the counter. My blood curdled in my veins. I felt inhuman, like a collection of chunks. My feet dragged with every step up the impossible incline, and I was tempted to collapse right where I was, plant a white flag, and let gravity win. Lose somewhat gracefully.
The top of my building appeared over the hill. I could see my apartment, the second window down, on the corner—it was pitch-dark inside, with my cheap white curtains billowing out of the open window, reaching into the night like a longing ghost.
Above, the moon shone silver and pretty, almost ripe for the picking, as my father used to say. The glittering sky rested like a crown on the horizon. So many jewels—stars burning, burning, so desperate to be seen, seeking attention over light-years. Easy to forget stars are mortal; they’re born, and they die. They shine for legacy.
It was July, and July is always stingy with breezes, a simmering miser. But this night . . . this night seemed antsy. I didn’t feel a breeze, but I saw it skittering all around me. The trees that neatly lined the street swayed, leaves waving. They caught the orangey light of the streetlamps, which seemed to glow more intensely than usual. Beyond the sidewalk, something rustled the bushes. The flowers, lush and blooming, craned their necks.
The movement, the light . . . these things I maybe could have dismissed. It was the silence that unnerved me, that confirmed the wrongness of the scene.
Yes, I was exhausted, and yes, I was drunk, and yes, I was a bit raw from being unceremoniously sacked. But I had spent years, wittingly and unwittingly, calibrating the alarm inside me that alerted me to danger. Those of us who need it don’t have a choice.
So I knew when I wasn’t alone. I knew when I was being watched.
Maybe everyone experiences it differently, the sensation of hidden eyes. For me, it manifested like repeated prodding with a sharp stick. Like an itch on the inside of my skin.
Around me, the night remained too beautiful. Too clean. No litter on the sidewalk, another disturbing observation. The scene seemed eager for me to trust it, so, of course, I didn’t.
I stood, unsettled, teetering in the middle of the street, searching for evidence, for visual proof of a threat. I waited for the appearance of a figure, a shadow invading the circles of light from the streetlamps or creeping out from behind a parked car. I waited for sound, a noise to disrupt the excessive silence. I waited for an antagonist to emerge from the dark.
The thing about danger is, it always has a face. It chooses whether to show it to you or not.
“Go on—come out,” I whispered. “Why delay the big reveal?”
There’s something you should know about me, that I’ve come to learn, that I should probably tell you now, so the rest of this makes sense. Seems I’m the type to pick at a scab until it bleeds, then peel back the skin to see what’s underneath. The kind of curious that invites self-destruction.
But I’m also impatient, and after what felt like an hour of nothing but peculiar quiet and the incessant pawing of humidity, I relented, turning back to the hill and continuing my climb. I plodded on—pushing through the dizziness, the ache, the pouring sweat, the lingering burn of margarita and vomit in my throat—and finally, finally, made it to the door of my building.
I fumbled my keys. I peeked over my shoulder one last time, half expecting to see someone standing at the end of the walkway, a lurking stranger. But there was no one. I was alone.
I managed to get the door open. I had to climb up three flights of stairs on my hands and feet like an animal. My drunk, trembling legs couldn’t hold me.
When I got up to my apartment, the mystery of my suspicion unfurled so perfectly, like the gentle pull of a ribbon flattening a bow.
There was a large red envelope resting on my doormat.
All this time, they’d known exactly where I was. Of course they had.
So, that’s why the night was acting so strange, I thought. It was scared.
I snatched up the envelope and hurried inside, locking the dead bolt behind me. I shuffled across the floor, kicking off my sneakers, tearing off my polo and tossing it in the trash. I freed myself of my bra and collapsed onto my bed, forever unmade thanks to its position; it was wedged in my small studio apartment’s makeshift sleeping nook, originally intended to be a closet.
I turned the envelope over in my hands. It was silky to the touch, and weighty. I never thought I’d describe an envelope as beautiful, but it was.
I also never thought I’d describe an envelope as eviscerating, but it was. It was the sword shining in the sun on the walk up to the execution block. It was soul wrenching, spine crushing, inducing a panic so profound, I felt as though I were levitating above my mattress, abandoned by the laws of nature, which wanted nothing to do with me and the ticking bomb in my hands.
Once again, I chastised myself for having thought of them earlier that evening. For having missed them.
You called them back, said a hissing voice in my ear, that did and didn’t sound like me.
Black Sheep will be released on September 19, but you can pre-order it now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB