Rating: 3.75 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Brendan Halloran has ostensibly come to Hocking Hills to research his new book about a haunted house. In reality, the death of his son Connor has Brendan mired in grief and depression and the idea that Connor’s spirit is trapped in the house won’t leave him. Brendan doesn’t really believe in ghosts, but his fears about Connor grow every day, so arranging to work with a paranormal investigation team that includes psychics is an opportunity he can’t pass up. When Brendan meets Josh, he can tell that Josh is a fan who can barely contain his excitement, but Josh’s professionalism and awkwardness put Brendan at ease. Soon, Brendan is more comfortable and lighter than he’s been since Connor became sick.

Josh is over the moon that he gets to spend time with his favorite author doing his favorite hobby, but he sees Brendan’s wariness and grief and knows he needs to tread lightly. He’s always found Brendan attractive, but meeting the man and having his interest returned is the stuff of fantasies. As they bond over being geeks and Josh shares his passions with Brendan, Brendan opens up to his attraction to Josh and the possibility of moving forward without Connor. However, Brendan won’t be in the area forever… unless the ghost of an evil woman adds Josh and Brendan to her murder count.

These Haunted Hills is an enjoyable story about navigating grief and depression, as well as about paranormal investigations. From Brendan’s first appearance at the cabin, he is thinking about suicide. While it is not mentioned much going forth, it is something to note for those sensitive to the subject. Brendan’s depression and grief is almost as bad as it was when Connor first died. In the subsequent three years, he and his wife have divorced and he has only been able to write mournful poetry to Connor. He wants to work with Josh’s team to learn about paranormal investigations for his book, but he is also seeking answers about the possibility that ghosts are real. He isn’t expecting to connect with anyone and definitely not so quickly. Brendan is attracted to Josh almost immediately and considers him a confidant within hours of meeting, but he’s conflicted about being happy and moving on. He doesn’t think that he’s ready, but his feelings say otherwise.

Josh is cheerful, adorable, and very competent in all his endeavors. His warmth and enthusiasm are infectious, and he offers Brendan a quiet comfort Brendan didn’t know he needed. He gives Brendan space to expel his tears, anger, and memories, and his exuberance shows Brendan that life can still have joy even after something so tragic. Josh cherishes the glimpses of happiness he begins to see from Brendan, and he is overwhelmed that Brendan is so at ease with him and finds him attractive.

Josh’s hunting crew is fun and clearly love what they do. Josh’s best friend, Cassie, gets the most page time, so she is the most fleshed out beyond being nice and into paranormal investigating. The psychic twins have the next largest amount of page time because they have a utility in the story, but have no real character beyond being psychic, and Hunter is basically lost after his introduction, which is a shame, since that glimpse shows him to be charming.

Hunter is an example of how the story sets up elements then lets them more or less fall off the map. Brendan’s emotional arc is healthily managing his grief, which is easier to portray than other internal conflicts, such as the one Josh is set up to have. He’s supposedly internalized his bullies’ taunts that ‘he makes everything worse,’ but there is no emotional payoff for this idea. He doesn’t need an arc necessarily; he can just be the uber-geek who’s inner brightness lights up mountains, but introducing something then not exploring it is distracting to me. Because this is a book about the ghost hunting not the ghosts, any ideas mentioned about the ghosts are left dangling as well.

Hills is a prime example of an author writing what they know. The author’s clear love of Hocking Hills, local lore, and paranormal investigations is evident. The paranormal exists, but it’s almost an afterthought. The blurb says “Unfortunately for him, the ghost is every bit as vicious as the killer was in life, and he and Joshua have a target on their backs,” but honestly, the unhappy ghost is a nothing burger. The plot is concentrated on the intricacies of investigations and the paranormal richness of Hocking Hills. The characters remark on how unglamorous and boring it can, and in a 350+ page book, I felt the story’s length and was left somewhat dissatisfied with how the malicious ghost was handled.

As the focus is Brendan’s grief and how Josh sharing his passion for his research on foxes, geekdom, and the paranormal strikes life in Brendan’s heart, this makes sense. Their hikes, midnight walks with foxes, and watching of the hours of footage and encounters they have are the pieces that start to put Brendan back together, but for me, a couple of the hikes to show the boring nature of investigation could have been cut, as there are little to no emotional or plot beats that propel the narrative or they’re repeated elsewhere.

There is one thing that does bother me about the story though. Brendan is so deep in grief it feels like if his meeting with Josh was even a day later, he would have harmed himself. His journey towards acceptance happens over the span of a month, which isn’t unheard of, but still fast. However, there is a harrowing situation near the end that should have really shaken Brendan, but is glossed over.  Something happens that makes Brendan fear for Josh’s life and makes him worried he will lose someone else he loves. But afterwards, Brendan is mostly jokes with a slight mention of his fear. Having worked in children’s cancer research hospitals, spent time with parents, and given the depth of Brendan’s grief just a month ago, I found it ridiculous that he would not be triggered and was able to let it go so fast. There’s only so much the ‘he’s just happy it worked out’ concept can be stretched. It’s the most unrealistic thing about the story and feels like a disingenuous need for drama that has to be quickly wrapped up.

Though These Haunted Hills didn’t hit all cylinders for me, since I prefer the paranormal to the hunting, I enjoyed it and the insight into the reality of paranormal investigations it gives. It also accomplishes the goal of portraying a man’s struggle with hope after loss and how an adorably sweet and competent ball of joy helps set him on that path.