Sallow Bend by Alan Baxter
Oh my, what a title. Roll that around in your mouth: Sallow Bend, the same rounded, sticky, slow sounds as cellar door. Sallow Bend is the euphoniously-named anywhere town that Alan Baxter has created, and it’s a busy place, thankfully full of life. Summer is neigh, school is days away from letting out, a carnival has set up on the edge of town, and two teen-age girls have gone missing. Baxter’s treading some well-worn paths here, but that’s fine for a supernatural thriller—it’s all in the execution. As we often say about these kinds of familiar stories—tell me your version. Make me care. Make me scared.
And Baxter does a pretty good job, overall. The elements are all there at the beginning: the carnival brings some suspicious shade, everyone has questions about the missing teens, and a couple is still reeling from the mysterious disappearance of their son, gone now a year. From this fertile introduction we meet the main characters, Caleb, the school janitor with hyper-sensitivity, and Tricia, the mother of the missing boy. When Tricia joins the search for the missing girls in an attempt to salve her gaping wound, she meets Caleb, who has his own overwhelming issues to deal with. The mystery deepens from there and you can picture Baxter behind each page, lurking, working, stacking details like bricks and crafting dialogue that sounds like people.
Though focused on our two mains, Baxter uses the ol’ jumping-heads narrative trick of exploring the town and the ensuing weird and horrific crimes, right up until the bloody climax. There are probably close to fifteen characters that get their chance in the narrative spotlight. Some seem more necessary than others, though, as their presence is mainly to aid our main characters in their quest, while others, like Val, the only competent police officer, should have had ‘their chapter’ earlier in the book given their prominence. However, Baxter keeps the chapters fairly short, so the story keeps rolling even if he slows down for a bit. Nobody stays still for long, especially once the big bad is introduced and bodies start dropping every few scenes.
Once the blood starts flowing, we follow Caleb and Tricia in their efforts to uncover the mystery. Yes, they must do their research, which involves talking to old timers and a trip to the library (microfiche scene!) to learn about the town’s dark past. Along the way they must dodge attempts on their lives and attempt to save a few, which means our mains are always unstable, always under threat. The way Baxter uses the carnival also contributes to the strange situation, as we’re introduced to a large group of people who initially have no connection to the town’s ancient crimes. Though innocent, the carnies nonetheless become involved, though I wish Baxter had gone further with the conflict and suspicions of having these outsiders appear at the worst possible moment. In particular, the various heel and face turns of Saul, with his bizarre abilities and sideshow attraction dedicated to the Nazi Dr. Mengele, would make him a main character in his own novel. Here he’s mostly used as a red herring or, eventually, as a supernatural support for Caleb and Tricia, and while his arc resolves appropriately, he could’ve also injected some lunacy to the novel.
Which isn’t to say that there wouldn’t be buckets of karo-syrup everywhere if Sallow Bend makes it to screen. Baxter takes almost a Final Destination-like approach to his death scenes, with that same cold yet inventive inevitability. Once we realize a character is in danger, it’s just a question of how they will meet their demise. The supernatural elements keep these scenes gory, tragic, and bloody weird, and I’m sure Baxter was having a ball coming up with the dues ex machina for each spectacular death. They’re worth the price of admission alone!
Though I don’t want to consider the number of hours Baxter spent on Sallow Bend, I’d firmly shove this in my bag for a fun beach reach or stay up too late with it with a half-empty whiskey at my elbow and lots of shadows in the corners. Read a page, have a sip, roll the whiskey—and that title—around in your mouth as you appreciate the carnage. Drink deep and enjoy: summer has arrived in Sallow Bend.
Review by Justin Allec
Sallow Bend by Alan Baxter
Something old and deadly has awoken.
When two teenagers go missing from the small, rural town of Sallow Bend, the residents come together to search for them. Little do they suspect that finding the wayward girls will be the start of their problems. An old evil is rising, and only one man seems to realize that everyone is in danger and this is not the first time it’s happened. With the carnival in town, people want to have a good time, but for many, this will be the worst time of their lives.
“Alan Baxter is an accomplished storyteller who ably evokes magic and menace.” – Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase
“Baxter delivers the horror goods.” – Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World
“Step into the ring with Alan Baxter, I dare you. He writes with the grace, precision, and swift brutality of a prizefighter.” – Christopher Golden, New York Times bestselling author of Ararat and The Pandora Room