Review of Ashwood–A Haunting Debut Horror

Ashwood CoverEvery time Willow falls asleep, she wakes up back in the twisted world of Ashwood Asylum. Her haunted dreams are the subject of Ashwood, a young adult horror novel by debut author C.J. Malarsky. I requested a copy of this book many, many months ago, shortly after it was first published in 2015. Now the book is being re-launched by Fantasy Works Publishing this week! The new paperbacks will be available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble starting on September 7, and you can even find some signed copies at Kinoyuniya NYC. The ebook will be available at Amazon, iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo, and Nook.

Willow, the protagonist of Ashwood, is somewhat of an outcast at school, ostracized for her frilly Lolita clothing. Lacking many friends, Willow instead hangs out with her cool older cousin, Devin. But when Willow tags along with Devin and his friends to take some photos in an abandoned asylum, her life is changed forever. After the older teens play a prank on Willow that leaves her temporarily trapped inside a drawer in the asylum morgue, Willow wakes up inside a nightmarish version of the asylum. This world feels like a horror video game where every room and hallway leads to new terrors. Willow is attacked by twisted versions of her friends, swarmed by creepy butterflies, and haunted by former inmates. She races to escape the building, but the doors alternately lock and open as Ashwood guides her through the path it wants her to take. Finally Willow wakes back up in the real world to find her friends laughing at her fright and everything seems back to normal. But now every time Willow falls asleep, she re-enters the asylum dream world. Will Willow uncover the asylum’s secrets and find a way out before it’s too late?

What I really love about this book is that it takes a somewhat clichéd plot and setting—being trapped in a haunted asylum—and gives it a new spin. One way it does this is by incorporating Slavic mythology. Willow’s nightmare landscape is populated by Mora—creatures from Slavic folklore, similar to incubi, that are said to cause nightmares. Linguistically, the word also has a strong association with moths or butterflies, which play an important role in Ashwood, as well. The story also works in some Jungian philosophy and nicely ties it to the Slavic mythos.

But while the creepy Mora creatures certainly contribute to the atmosphere of horror, the scariest thing about this story is not knowing what’s real and what’s not. Is Ashwood just a disturbing dream? Or is this dream world somehow real? Can the events of the dream affect her in real life, or is Willow just having psychosomatic symptoms? For much of the book, we are left wondering if we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator. Even Willow begins to doubt herself as the lines between the real world and her dream world become increasingly blurred. Is she going crazy and imagining aspects of her nightmares intruding into her life? Or are her waking moments really just elaborately crafted illusions meant to torture her before plunging her back into the nightmare. I find it fascinating how closely related doubt is to fear—especially doubt of one’s own sensations, perceptions, and emotions. If you can’t trust even your own ability to perceive and process, the whole world becomes a dangerous unknown.

If you’re looking for some surreal and psychological horror that will make you afraid to fall asleep at night, I definitely recommend checking out Ashwood. Don’t forget to look out for the new edition of the book in stores this Wednesday. And if you read it, share your thoughts in the comments!

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