Book review: Witchfinder: Gallows at Twilight by William Hussey
Demons, monsters, banshees and creatures of the night...they’re such a scream!
The second book in William Hussey’s sensational young adult Witchfinder trilogy has arrived and the master of dark fantasy is wielding a new weapon in his impressive armoury - ‘gallows’ humour.
If you read Dawn of the Demontide and are already worrying that the ferocious intensity of Hussey’s thrilling debut has gone the lukewarm way of Harry Potter, never fear. He stills knocks the Hogwarts wizard into a cocked, or is that a conjuror’s, hat.
Edgy, spine-tingling, bleak and blood-soaked, Gallows at Twilight is undoubtedly Horror with a capital H but perfectly tempered by a motley bunch of knockabout ‘good’ characters who bring with them a wicked brand of black comedy.
Hussey keeps to the big themes of courage, loyalty, conscience and the battle between good and evil as he weaves his epic story of teenager Jake Harker, clone of the famous 17th century Witchfinder Josiah Hobarron, but now adds an inspired time travel element.
Ranged against Jake and his friends – both of this world and the dark side – are some of the scariest opponents in children’s literature.
There’s terrifying banshees whose unearthly wailing pierces ears and cripples brains, deadly skinwalkers who sacrifice their own families and live in other people’s bodies, the unthinkable horrors of the Khepra Beetle and the return of ruthless arch enemy Tobias Quilp.
Lining up on Jake’s side are Pandora, an eight-armed woman with a penchant for high-fives and one-liners, the nine feet tall troll Brag Badderson whose family motto is ‘You wanna cross a bridge, you gotta pay the troll’, a dog-headed man called Razor, the ghostly Mr Murdles and old friend and ally Rachel Saxby.
Jake has already saved civilisation once by closing the notorious Door into the demon realm, but now he is plagued by doubts and the powerful magic of his ancestor seems to be slipping away.
Without it, the world is doomed again because the Demon Father is on his way back and nobody knows yet what his evil plans are.
In the meantime, Jake and his pals are heading to Havlock Grange, fortress of the most evil being on earth, Marcus Crowden.
Their mission is to rescue Simon Lydgate, the half-demon boy who saved Jake’s life. Raised on ghost and witch stories, Jake uses his knowledge to defeat a range of terrifying opponents and rescue his friend but is left with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s all been that little bit too easy.
He’s right, of course, because there are unseen forces at work. Simon is a ticking time bomb waiting to be set in motion when the hour comes for the Demontide to turn again.
And Jake must endure tests and tortures as he travels back in time to the age of witch trials under the brutal real-life Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.
As the personal demons of Jake’s long-buried other self threaten to overwhelm him, will he succumb to the dark desire for revenge against his old adversary?
Hussey has stepped up several gears in Gallows at Twilight, creating a pulsating story with a depth of imagination and scope that is truly mind-blowing.
He toys with our feelings – fear, pity, tension, horror, pathos – and leaves Jake’s battle with the darkness tantalisingly unresolved.
Nothing is certain in the world of Witchfinder and it will remain that way until the much-anticipated final chapter later this year.
Can we wait that long?
(Oxford University Press, paperback, £6.99)