Written by: William Massa
“The crows acted like they owned the place.” – ‘Delphine Dodd’
With this opening line, S.P. Miskowski sets the eerie tone that she skillfully sustains for the next hundred pages of her Shirley Jackson Award finalist novella. This is compelling, richly textured period horror in the vein of ‘The Others,’ a story that explores life in rural Washington State at the beginning of the Twentieth Century all the way up to the mid-seventies.
The story starts slowly but inexorably exacts an undeniable pull over the imagination – Delphine Dodd and her sister are dropped off by their wayward mother at a secluded cabin in the woods to be raised by their enigmatic grandmother, a woman attuned to the secrets of the forest. The set-up has the dark power of a classic fairy tale, two children abandoned and discarded into a strange new world, a place of wonder and terror. With the guidance of her loving grandmother, Delphine begins to learn how to tap into the ancient power of the forest but also to respect the supernatural forces that reside within the ancient woods.
The novella is split into two parts and each tale covers a different period in Delphine’ life. The first half plays like a classic ghost story and features some mesmerizing, dreamlike imagery that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned. Familiar horror tropes like sanitariums run by evil doctors and ancient Native American burial grounds are presented in a fresh, compelling manner. The second story follows an adult Dolphine Dodd as she seeks an apprentice to teach the ancient healing arts, a quest that ultimately culminates in deadly tragedy.
Miskowski crafts an atmospheric tale that gets under our skin by richly evoking a time long gone by and drawing on the humbling power of history. The horror is subtle and relies on carefully modulated waves of suspense and finely tuned psychological detail. The story explores the complex bonds that connect mothers and daughters while probing the darkness that dwells within the human soul. All throughout, the writer’s attention to detail results in a richly imagined setting that feels both tangibly real yet surreal and dreamlike. Once this carefully constructed reality begins to fray, and the darkness begins to break through the cracks, the reader is swept up by the dark trajectory of the narrative. Ultimately, Miskowski’s story achieves what all great horror literature strives for – she makes us believe.
For certain horror fans, ‘Delphine Dodd’ might be too subtle and literary while some male readers might be scared off by the all-female cast of characters and some of the thematic underpinnings of the material, but the story’s power can not be denied, and patient readers will be richly rewarded.
Delphine Dodd is the first in a series of three novellas set in the world of Miskowski’s novel ‘Knock Knock,’ the works all forming the larger Skillute Cycle. The novella can be enjoyed as a stand-alone tale but does feel like a piece of a greater whole and ideally should be read as a companion to the novel – Knock Knock is definitely being bumped up to the top of my reading queue!
Order Delphine Dodd here.