Seaside transformations

S.L Coney’s Wild Spaces is a gripping eldritch horror about family trauma and monsters who return home

Seaside transformations
Image: Andrew Liptak 

I've been slowly crawling out of the reading rut that I've been in lately. Over the weekend, I picked up S.L. Coney's recent book, Wild Spaces, a slim eldritch horror that follows a boy who watches as his idyllic family is torn apart with the arrival of his long-absent grandfather.

I hadn't really been in the mood for a horror book recently – I feel like the recent flooding has left me wrung out and a bit cranky, and not really in the mood for something that's a heavy lift, but the book was on Libro.FM's influencer catalog, I had a copy of it, so I figured it would make for a good read while I was on the road earlier this week. (No fun trips, sadly – an expensive afternoon at the dealer while they figured out why my car was accumulating 1-2 inches of water every time it rained.) It's a good, short book that packs a hefty punch to the gut.

One of the things that appeals to me about shorter books or flash fiction is the author's work to use the shorter form to present a story that's on its surface one thing, but something else entirely under the surface. In Wild Spaces, we follow a boy who seems to have a perfect childhood on the Atlantic coast. Coney describes the boy's mother and father as "movie stars in black and white, a full-orchestra-in-the-background kind of pretty," while the arrival of dog (named Teach) provides the boy with a best friend for the summer.

That summer is upended with the abrupt arrival of a stranger – the boy's maternal grandfather – whose absence brings foreboding and strife to the small family. The boy is uneasy around this new figure in his life, his mother is torn between family loyalty and fear, and Teach is fiercely protective, recognizing something unsettling about him.

Over the coming weeks, we watch as this arrival drives a stake into the heart of the family, awakening some long-buried family secrets, and something of a transformation in the boy, one that the mother is only too aware of. The book quickly culminates in a storm and a horrific finale.

The story feels like it's playing with two things simultaneously. It's a straight-up horrific story about transformations: you can probably guess what the hidden dangers, while at the same time playing out a story about familial trauma, and about a boy on the cusp of puberty, dealing with all the changes that come with growing up. Monsters aren't always Lovecraftian in nature: sometimes, it's just a violent member of the family, and how it doesn't take much for violence and strife to reenter one's life, even if you've spent a good amount of time running from it.

Despite that, it's not a pessimistic story. It's one that feels loaded with redemption – how the changes you make in your life can percolate out to those around you. Fleeing the past might bring with it scars that don't fade overnight, but with each step, you get a little further out into the light. It's enough so that you know that the darkness isn't all encompassing when it eventually does return.

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