Gods of Howl Mountain is one of those Southern gothic novels full of magic and menace. Our main characters are Granny May, a fount of folk wisdom and healing, and her grandson Rory, a bootlegger with a souped-up car who left a leg behind in Korea. He and his best friend Eli work for Eustace, the most powerful moonshiner in the area. He is falling for Christine, a beautiful woman whose snake-handling preacher father may have been one of the men who attacked Rory’s mother and killed her lover–a tragic event that left her muted and committed to a state mental hospital. Rory hopes to discover who attacked his mother and seek his revenge even if he is the father of the woman he’s coming to love. Further complications are added by a rivalry with another moonshining family, the local sheriff (the preacher’s brother), and a federal revenuer without scruples.
As you can see there is a lot going on, but the central element of Taylor Brown’s Gods of Howl Mountain is the rich and fulsome prose. It’s often lush and poetic, such that I want to read descriptions out loud. Here is just one example:
“She watched a wolf spider creep through a slanted pane of light on the edge of the porch, hunting, and she could almost hear the whisper of its legs over the boards. She heard a brace of grouse explode to flight, startled by some predator, their wings thumping the air as they rose in a storm from the trees. Closer, the bottles sang faintly from the limbs of the golden chestnut, a shifting cascade of light as the breeze nudged them. Below this crouched the old bootlegging coupe, coal-black and mean, the hood opened like a great maw. That big machine-heart gleaming under the sun, full of chambers and valves and unmade song.”
I love descriptive prose and there is so much to love. However, not everything needs to be written as though life on earth depends on how fulsome the prose is. For example, describing a rash of people catching cold as “a wildfire of red-raw throats tearing along the ridges,” just made me laugh. Likewise, describing a sow as “gentle as a two-barrel Lincoln” just baffles me. What does he mean? The sow seems friendly, so the Lincoln a shotgun or a car? Why would either be gentle? If this was a one-off, I would not mention it, but there are plenty of examples of similes that seem forced and strange.
Nonetheless, the story is successful and moody, though perhaps the mystery is not completely fair. Rory is on the wrong track in investigating and is set aright by revelation, not deduction. The revelation is the result of his efforts, though so I won’t complain too much. There is enough groundwork laid so when the revelation happens, it does not seem impossible or even unlikely, just surprising. The story builds so slowly, though, the end seems unsatisfyingly fast. We spend chapters on building up this rivalry, the romance, the mystery, and boom, it’s over, and Rory slept through a good part of it. How did that happen? It felt almost like you could blink and miss it.
However, I enjoyed the story. I like the rich and colorful prose, the folk wisdom from Granny May, the suspense and anxiety of bootlegging. My uncle was a bootlegger and my dad worked on his car and loved to tell stories of his brother’s exploits. Let’s just say my uncle’s career was much less exciting.
I received an e-galley of Gods of Howl Mountain from the publisher through NetGalley.