"What Grows in the Dark" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by MIRA Books

what grows in the dark jaq evans poster large

Written by Jaq Evans
2024, 288 pages, Fiction
Released on 5th March 2024


One of the Amazon blurbs for What Grows in the Dark, opens with “The Babadook meets The Blair Witch Project,” which is one of the biggest oversells I have come across in a while. This debut, from Jaq Evans, is a solid read which shows promise, but linking first-time novelists to all-time masterpieces might sound like a cool marketing technique, but ultimately it does not do them that much good. Living up to such hype is impossible.

What Grows in the Dark has a fascinating opening hook but fails to deliver on that early promise. The story is populated with unlikable characters and muddled plot shifts which make little sense, backed up by a supernatural entity which fails to engage, threaten, or scare. The main character is clearly suffering from the traumatic effects of a childhood incident, and a major part of the plot is how she copes with this when she returns to her childhood home of Ellis Creek. This is a significantly more interesting thread than the vagueness of the monsters which might lurk in the trees and how it connects to the disappearances the plot revolves around.

Brigit Weylan is the young woman suffering from the lingering trauma of her elder sister Emma disappearing in the local forest, known as The Dell, sixteen years earlier, whilst playing a childhood game together. When the novel opens, Brigit receives a phone call from a former friend of her dead sister, who claims there have been two other disappearances remarkably similar to her Emma, and could she return home to help.

This is where things get interesting, but the execution of the novel fails to do the clever idea justice. Why should Brigit be able to help with the disappearances? Since graduating from college, Brigit has been working as a fake spiritualist with her best friend Ian (the camera operator) and has been cleansing houses, posting YouTube videos and effectively grifting their way across the country. I thought this ‘grift’ had a lot of plot mileage, but it goes unexplored and instead we head into haunted forest territory. Even more significant, we find out Brigit uses the fake ‘spirit’ of Emma as a guide (this is neat, unnerving, and slightly sinister) to help her cleanse the places she visits. It is a shame this does not play a bigger part in the novel. If you are expecting fake seances and Lorraine Warren-style theatrics, you will be disappointed.

Returning to any childhood home and its special memories (good and bad) is always unsettling, and What Grows in the Dark does an excellent job of creating an edgy atmosphere, with Brigit being hit by memories or flashbacks around every corner. This is amplified by weird dreams, visions, and hearing Emma’s distant voice on her phone. Brigit did not have a particularly happy childhood, being gay in a small conservative town is tough and the novel has great wider LGBTQIA+ representation. Emma’s old friend, who initially contacts Brigit, does not realise she is a fake spiritualist and that is another angle which caught my attention, as everybody seems so gullible.

The two narratives of ‘Brigit’ and ‘Ian’ are peppered with flashbacks and the occasional news report from the earlier disappearances. However, the Brigit and Ian voices are incredibly similar, and I occasionally forget which narrative I was following. Also, switching between Brigit and Ian as narrators is not necessary, since it is supposed to be about Brigit’s past, with Ian being more of a supporting character. For much of the time, the story comes across as a thriller, subdued for extended periods, before going full-blown horror in the final 25%.

The supernatural element of the story is ultimately very generic, broadly falling into the folk horror category and considering there is such a big build up, the reader deserves an explanation about why the woods are haunted, which isn’t forthcoming. But if you like creepy forests and unnamed entities which lurk within, What Grows in the Dark is still worth a look, with much circling back to childhood and Brigit being forced to confront the secrets she’s been running from for the last sixteen years.


Overall: 3 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Buy from Amazon UK.

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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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