Published by Poltergeist Press, Those Below the Tree House follows Tony, a teenager living in the mountain community of Riverside. As the town is ravaged by an unknown virus that turns the population into monsters, he takes shelter in a tree house along with his friends. As they face imminent doom, the boys decide they should experience their firsts – their first cigarette, their first drink – as the world below them goes to hell.
While Matt Hayward is a truly gifted writer in the genre of horror, he has outdone himself with Those Below the Tree House. While a mutated form of the cordyceps infecting humans isn’t a new idea in the media, these creatures aren’t the main focus of the story. Many stories in this genre focus on capable adults who become badasses in the face of danger, so it is refreshing to see it from the perspective of a group of children. The biggest strength of the book is the plot, as the reader follows these kids who are forced to grow up in a world that has lost all its innocence.
All the staples of Hayward’s writing can be found throughout, from the gripping scenes of tension which make his stories unputdownable, to his sense of macabre humour. Another element that makes it such a great read is how quickly Hayward throws the reader into the action. While some of his other stories may take a bit of time to get into the plot, Those Below the Tree House grips the reader from the first line, refusing to let go until the final chapter. There are moments of levity in the story, but the foreboding threat is always there – it’s Stephen King levels of quality.
“The world first bared its teeth when I turned thirteen, starting with a drunkard on a riverbank.”
One thing to note is that Hayward isn’t afraid to kill his characters in violent ways. Unlike in other stories in the subgenre, just because Tony and his companions are still children doesn’t mean their youth can act as a shield to death. Hayward is quick to subvert the audience’s expectations: this horror story is brutal and unforgiving, no one is safe.
Even though cordyceps is the main threat to the characters in the story, readers shouldn’t approach this story thinking it’s going to be a fanfiction piece of The Last of Us. Those Below the Tree House is a totally different beast, and while stories around the loss of innocence are by no means a new concept in storytelling, this is one of the strongest examples of it in contemporary fiction. Much like the ravenous monsters that explore the pages of this book, Those Below the Tree House will take hold of the reader and stay with them.
Those Below the Tree House will be released by Poltergeist Press on June 11th. Review copy provided.
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An expertly penned apocalyptic coming-of-age horror story, Those Below the Tree House is the strongest piece of work from one of horror’s most talented writers.
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