Audio Read: Dark Heights

Audiobook cover: Dark Heights from Serial Box (now Realm)

Park Heights is an LA suburb of retired actors and rich recluses. The diner is vegan, everyone is a regular at the Wellness Centre, and none of the residents would be your first choice to put at the heart of an ancient battle between powerful magical forces. Which is unfortunate, given who just arrived in town…

I’m kicking off my reviews for Wyrd And Wonder with something a little bit different. Dark Heights by CD Miller is my latest Serial Box Realm audio adventure, which I had completely the wrong end of the stick about. I expected a period piece (maybe I was confused with Beatrix Greene) about a magician and an actress solving crimes (…I swear it was advertised this way at some point). That’s really not what it’s about. Sure, there’s both a magician and an actress, but never on page at the same time and they definitely aren’t solving crimes (although they certainly commit a few).

Instead, set the dial for a contemporary Twin Peaks vibe and brace yourself for a meandering, multi-POV tale of suburban life interrupted by amoral sorcerers and government death squads, where slow-building back-story and quirky relationships are punctuated by outbreaks of unexpected bloody violence. It’s definitely the oddest thing I’ve listened to on Serial Box Realm to date and while the pace and lack of focus frustrated me at times, the narrative and characters have stayed with me. In fact, I’ve been worrying about Tess Bellamy all day.

Tess Bellamy is the aspiring actress, a rather mature nineteen-year-old fresh back from a bad experience in Hollywood. She’s beautiful and compassionate, but she’s never been cool except to other outsiders. Home for now, she’s running deliveries for the local grocery store while she figures out what next, but we meet her panicking in the dark, covered in blood, frantic to escape… someone. Dark Heights starts with heart-thumping drama and then slowly revisits the low-key events leading up to that fateful night with the occasional flash forward to Tess’s desperate flight through the woods.

This is Twin Peaks in the sense of small-town gossip, tangled histories, weird businesses and surreal antagonists (this is not who killed Tess Bellamy – she’s attacked, not murdered). We meet Park Heights as Tess drives her rounds, picking up context and meeting the cast as we go: Jenny and Karen, the lovely lesbian couple running the B&B; Tess’s mom the cult horror icon, seeking new ways to wrestle her demons; Charlie Mills, brain-damaged former classmate and town mapmaker; adorable best friend Kevin Cho, depressive melomaniac; and the reclusive Severands, hill-top billionaires who just don’t relate to the world like anyone else (it’s probably just the privilege and the uncountable pile of cash, right? Right?).

One of the features here is the love CD Miller lavishes on context. If Tess mentions someone, we’ll likely revisit them at some point (the exception, sadly, being the Russian emigré who is determined to get Tess a boyfriend). It’s a rich tapestry that brings the town to life in a flurry of asides and POV switches that rarely contribute to the core plot (we spend part of the climactic final night with Kevin Cho, fretting about whether the band will actually show up at the Severands’ party because he’s desperate to hear some music. That’s it, that’s the whole scene). It’s not usually my favourite style of storytelling, but I find I’m willing to give Dark Heights a lot of rope.

One reason for this is the spectacular audio production. This is a masterclass in voice narration from Julia Whelan (so expressive), Dion Graham (this man’s VOICE. I could listen to it all day) and the versatile Neil Hellegers; and Chris Miller’s score provides an atmospheric counterpoint throughout. Consequently, Dark Heights is an immersive joy to listen to.

The other reason is the intriguing plot – to which Tess and arguably the townsfolk are almost entirely peripheral – playing out in the shadows behind Crazies diner and in the gardens of the B&B and the Severand mansion, relayed through FBI case reports and the tortured reminiscences of a man on the run. Gabriel Majeaux is more than a street magician – we meet him reading tarot cards to earn cash on the streets of LA, but he can teleport and has an array of mind tricks. He’s drifting west after a dream of teenage siblings and a party that he knows he should ignore, but the call is irresistible. So is the pursuit: suited ‘Trinities’ determined to capture him alive or dead, agents of an implacable foe that Gabriel and archimages like him have battled for centuries.

While his narration puts Gabriel front and centre, it’s hard to consider him the good guy (water that is increasingly muddied with the introduction of FBI case files, crystal clear on the danger he poses). In fact, it’s soon unclear whether there are any good guys since neither the archimages nor the Watchers have much regard for garden variety humanity, alive or dead. At least Gabriel tries to avoid collateral damage, and to make reparations where he can. But when he adopts a trainee, his excitement at their abilities exceeds his drive to teach them ethics – but then Gabriel and his Order are on the brink of extinction, grasping for weapons that can help stop the tide. Still, my sympathies were firmly with the clueless residents of Park Heights (especially Jenny & Karen of the Mayfair B&B, who are manipulated into taking Gabriel in).

For all my affection for Dark Heights, I suspect it may prove to be a Marmite title for Realm. The pace demands patience and the narrative structure – unfocused, non-chronological, shared between many POVs – results in weird tonal shifts, not so much creeping horror as abrupt switches from suburban quotidian to people being dismantled in diners. The subplots are messy: the evolution of strange new therapies at the Wellness Centre is never integrated into the main narrative (I think this is purely set-up for future seasons), and the plot simply jumps in places (the development of Tess’s relationships are a mystery in their own right).

The season ends on a stunning cliffhanger with more loose ends than answers, Miller trusting he’s built enough curiosity to bring you back for more. I tend to assume a season on Realm will be a complete story – dangling threads for future seasons, certainly, but with its own arc and providing some closure. Dark Heights is merely Part One – all set-up and no resolution – leaving us hanging and hoping that Part Two will come along soon. It’s a brave choice and I admit that my immediate reaction was to swear – I haven’t forgiven Realm for not renewing Born to the Blade – but the good news is that Miller is hard at work on Part Two (although it’s unclear whether Realm are committed beyond Season One).

Because Miller has done enough to bring me back for more. I’m worried about Tess Bellamy, dammit, and I want to see Gabriel brought to justice (preferably by Agent Mehta). While I’m not pro-Watcher, I am curious to learn more about them – and the Severands – and to see how the ‘magical apocalypse’ theme this shares with Bookburners is developed. In spite of myself, I want to know what’s going on at the Wellness Centre and with Charlie Mills.

Dark Heights: not at all what I expected, but all the more interesting for it – and oddly beguiling. Worth a look (or even better, a listen).

Content warnings: stalking, attempted sexual assault, (magical) mind control, references to domestic abuse and suicide