Jackson Gill is a young man with a problem.
Actually, Jackson has a number of problems. For starters, he, his girlfriend Annie, and his friend Newie have just found the body of a murdered girl in the woods. But it gets weirder. Although discovering the dead girl was unexpected, it’s nothing new in Apple, Massachusetts. In fact, similar murders have been happening in Apple for years, and this body is the third this season.
Believe it or not, discovering the girl’s body isn’t Jackson’s biggest problem. Wait for it…
“In Apple,” Jackson tells us, “we never ask why a murder has happened. We ask how.”
This pronouncement sets the stage for what is to come in Howard Odentz’s Bloody Bloody Apple, a tale of small-town secrets and a horror that lies just beneath the surface and out of sight, a thing so terrible the residents of Apple have tacitly agreed to not talk about it. With his protagonist and narrator Jackson, Odentz places us right in the middle of this claustrophobic town, a place that technically belongs in the state of Massachusetts but seems millions of miles from anywhere. Everyone seems to know each other, and they know each other’s business, good and bad—but mostly bad.
Bloody Bloody Apple is full of characters who are just offbeat enough to feel authentic without being caricatures. There’s Newie’s father, the police chief who is “dating” a stripper, and a creepy priest named Father Tim. There’s Jackson’s father, a man who spends most of his time in a workshop building crucifixes, his catatonic-yet-still-walking-around mother who does little more than smoke cigarettes and lie in bed, his ailing, nearly crippled grandfather, and his mentally ill sister, Becky.
Oh, yes. Becky, another of Jackson’s many problems.
Becky lives in the basement of the Gill household, chained, drugged, and locked away, a dirty family secret (Remember those?). No one seems to be quite sure whether Becky is truly insane or possessed by some supernatural entity, but one thing is definitely true: Jackson is terrified by her, or at least by her alter ego, Not-Becky.
As bad as all that sounds, though, that’s still not Jackson’s biggest problem. His biggest problem is that Not-Becky appears to have specific knowledge about the local murders. Eerily specific knowledge, as in the exact contents of bizarre messages left for the police by the murderer, odd details about the murder scenes, and cryptic predictions about killings yet to come.
How is that even possible? Well, that’s what Jackson wants to know.
And off we go. Without revealing any crucial plot points here, let’s just say things in Jackson’s life get bad, worse, and then take a decisive turn for downhill. Bloody Bloody Apple is a horror story and a thriller, but like the best and most enticing stories, it is, at its heart, a mystery. Odentz abides by all the time-honored rules of the whodunit, playing fairly with the reader and planting clues as well as red herrings, but he’s never restricted by them.
Odentz has tilled up a darker, more mature patch of ground than he did with his last release, the creepy, quirky zombie novel Dead (A Lot), but he seems to be just as comfortable here. Bloody Bloody Apple knows exactly what it is, and it delivers. There are occasional sprinkles of humor, yes, but most of all, it’s a dead serious, tough slice of teen life, with all its requisite ups, downs, insecurities, and a healthy dose of creepy murder.
With its sense of creeping dread, Bloody Bloody Apple is reminiscent of classic stories like Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but with a distinctly modern twist, moving at a steady clip even as it drives you nuts wanting to know what’s going to happen next. It’s a relentless, thrilling ride, and–to coin a phrase that’s woefully overused but that’s absolutely true here–it will keep you guessing all the way to the end.
Rating: Five out of Five Stars