#SpooktasticReads: Soon

Book cover: Soon - Lois MurphyThere are simple rules to survive in Nebulah. Get home before sunset. Close the windows and lock the doors. Draw the curtains. If you’re wise, turn up the TV to block out the noises outside. And never, ever get caught outside after dark…

A year ago, Nebulah was just another historic mining town on the wane. It had a store and a pub and enough families living locally to keep them open. It was in the midst of a bitter dispute over the benefits of selling an empty block of land to a supermarket chain. It was a refuge for those who had nowhere else to go.

Now it’s a town struggling to stay alive – literally.

The mist rises at sunset, bringing with it the voices of the dead and visions of what might happen to the living. To watch or listen is to court madness. To go outside is to die. Only the most stubborn have clung on in the year since it first appeared: those who refuse to leave or those who have nowhere else to go.

After the initial media frenzy, the case has been quietly closed. Cameras have never captured video of what lurks in the night; the audio recordings are all static. The government has no statute for hauntings, so will do nothing to help. Even the dead are glossed over, listed as missing as there are never any bodies. It’s easier to just close the book and leave the town to quietly disappear. One by one, the town’s 500 residents must decide whether to leave or stay.

Now, Nebulah’s last 11 residents are haunted by their pasts as much as their present. Retired cop Pete is unable to reconcile with his estranged family in Sydney – and held in Nebulah by loyalty to his neighbours. Old Milly refuses to leave the town where she buried her beloved husband (whose face mocks her from the mist). Cambodian refugee Li won’t be driven off the farm she has laboured to make her own. Pete won’t leave them behind – even when a psychic tells him that Milly will be the death of him if he stays.

Milly and Li are fierce, brave, stubborn, supportive and funny. Pot-growing Stick is slippery, selfish and untrustworthy. Self-absorbed Gail and her alcoholic husband Tom are a threat to themselves and a drain on a dwindling community that feels the responsibility but lacks the resources to keep them safe. Pete himself comes into sight more gradually as he grows introspective and depressed, convinced he has weeks to live but unwilling to leave Milly and Li behind. He’s deeply flawed; his found family in Nebulah are his lifeline after emotionally and physically distancing himself from those he loves.

The tenacious survivors’ only allies are in the nearest town (three hours’ drive away): a local cop and close friend of Pete’s, who is keen to avoid further deaths in Nebulah; and the owners of the town store, whose own future is in question as the bank considers a loan to keep their marginal business afloat.

The web of lifelines is fragile. The support is contingent on personal relationships: a holiday and a pregnancy leave Nebulah at the disbelieving mercy of a younger police officer unclear why the few residents of some remote town merit special treatment. If the store closes, Li will have nowhere to sell her produce and no source of income – saddled with a farm she cannot sell, even if she wanted to.

Inspired in part by the real-life abandonment of Wittenoom due to asbestos contamination, Soon is quietly critical of the way rural towns and their residents feel abandoned by distant urban governments. Worse, Nebulah’s residents (unlike Wittenoom’s) must abandon their homes and livelihoods with no hope of compensation if they leave, as neither government nor insurance companies are obliged to provide support in the event of life-threatening haunting.

A little too easy to pitch as The Mist meets I Am Legend, Lois Murphy’s debut novel is still a stylish take on classic tropes. While Soon is built on well-established foundations (even I felt I’d seen much of it before, and I barely read or watch horror), Murphy has a flair for evoking atmosphere. Her decision to focus on character creates an intimate tale where the true antagonist is not the ephemeral mist but the claustrophobic fear and the despair at having no way to fight back.

There are some odd choices: the mist arrives after five mysterious SUVs appear in town to observe the disputed supermarket plot, then disappear on the cemetery road. It lends the otherwise well-grounded tale a weird whiff of X-Files or government conspiracy and serves no narrative purpose. We never find out where the mist came from or what caused it – the vanishing cars are at most a harbinger of doom, their link to the proceedings unclear. Similarly, the final act is overwrought at best and feels like shameless railroading at worst as the plot suddenly escalates to bring Pete face to face with hard home truths.

The hardest truth about Soon itself is that it isn’t really interested in its ghost story trappings. This is a personal crisis of self-awareness, responsibility and regret; the ghosts that haunt Pete are not the spectres on his lawn each night. Consequently, I wonder whether Soon will be too predictable and too prosaic for horror afficionados, whilst being too damn spooky for a more mainstream audience.

For me, Soon‘s down-to-earth focus on the erosion of relationships and mental health made it feel very real (and this is arguably underlined by its frustrating refusal to provide answers). In spite of my quibbles, I tore through it in a day, engaged by the setting and sympathetic to the characters. Hopefully there are enough readers like me out there to give it a home.


CW: suicide, alcoholism, pet death

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.