Arkansas author Robert Campbell was nice enough to contact me several weeks back and ask if I’d like to receive a signed copy of his first novel for review, and of course I readily agreed, so thank you, Robert, for going to great personal expense to send me the print book by one-day shipping.
The book in question, The Legend of the Cove Witch, was evidently finished in 2016, according to the end note, but its publication date on Google Books is listed as October 2021. And speaking of Google Books, this novel’s entry, strangely, features the bio of another writer named Robert Campbell (an 85-year-old architect and Harvard grad who currently writes about architecture for the Boston Globe), and not the much younger man who wrote this particular book. So just a heads up.
Though the novel doesn’t specifically state that it’s YA, at least that I saw, that’s the impression I got when I started reading it, and as Robert Campbell has “children’s author” featured prominently in his (actual) bio, I’m going to assume that this was written for a younger audience, though it does have some fairly graphic violence at some points and a few very brief sex scenes.
The beginning of the story, set in the present day in the author’s hometown of Magnet Cove, Arkansas, revolves around a high school student named Noella McClain, who is busy doing what many teenage girls do: hanging with her best friend Brandi, working on class assignments, and crushing on hot quarterback Nicholas, who happily returns her affections. He even asks her to the homecoming dance, and Noella is over the moon, thinking her life couldn’t get any better.
But soon after, a darker pall is cast over the teenager’s life. One night, she has a very vivid nightmare in which a distant ancestor of hers, Janette McClain, pursues her through an old village. A terrified Noella is rescued by a ghostly little girl named Abigail, who warns Noella that Janette, the fabled Cove Witch and also little Abigail’s mother, is going to be coming to kill her very soon.
Noella has heard all the legends about the Cove Witch around town, and particularly the story that Janette is said to reappear every generation and murder one of her ancestors as revenge for what had been done to her centuries ago. Apparently no one in Magnet Cove really believes in the Cove Witch anymore, but Noella is starting to have her doubts, especially after she has yet another vision of Janette while she’s at the movies with her friends, an encounter that leaves her with distinct bruising in the shape of a hand clutching her arm.
One of her teachers at school assigns a research paper about a historical figure, and insists that Noella write one about Janette McClain, since the witch is a distant relation. Noella is reluctant, especially since she’s begun to suspect that the Cove Witch might be real, but she can’t manage to talk her way out of it. So she and her friends decide to go visit Noella’s aunt Nettie, who is something of the family historian and possesses old diaries and documents that lay out the events surrounding Janette and the family curse that followed in her wake.
From that point forward, the novel takes place almost entirely in the past, as Noella and her friends listen to Nettie reading to them from these ancestors’ journals. We first go back to 1691, and learn how Janette—a beautiful, decent, pure-hearted young woman—eventually turns to the dark side, due to a combination of a magic amulet called the Raven’s Eye that’s given to her by her doting husband Gerard, and her uncontained fury at a man named Magistrate Coleman, who’s been burning innocent girls as witches left and right.
Though Janette initially uses her powerful amulet for good, her anger and lust for power soon get the better of her, and after what she perceives as a personal betrayal by her family, she ends up murdering many of the townsfolk in horrible ways, including her young daughter Abigail.
As the story goes on, we jump ahead a bit to some of the later McClain ancestors and their run-ins with the witch, and every now and then, there’s an interlude where we’re back in the present with Noella and the gang. In the last act, Noella must figure out a way to finally destroy the witch and bring the centuries-long curse that has plagued her family for generations to a close.
While I really love stories about witches, and particularly ones that involve intergenerational curses, I think the thing that let this novel down wasn’t so much the concept of the story—which was interesting and largely well thought out—but the execution. According to the author’s acknowledgements at the beginning, the novel did have an editor, but it’s difficult to square that with the fact that the book has numerous formatting and grammatical errors. The most common were run-on sentences and sentence fragments, but there were also many missing dialogue quotes, two or more characters speaking in the same paragraph so it was unclear who was talking (which I also noticed in another recent book I reviewed, The House on Rectory Lane), and several instances of incorrect usage of to/too, of/off, and things of that nature. I don’t like to come down on independently published authors too harshly, because I’m one myself and I know how hard it is when you maybe can’t afford to hire a professional to look over your work, and if it’s not too egregious I’m inclined to let it slide, but in this case there were too many rudimentary mistakes for me to overlook.
There was also a very repetitive and somewhat amateurish tone to the writing, and one thing I noticed occurring many times throughout the text was there would be a scene where an event was described, and then in the next scene, a character would tell another character what had just happened, essentially repeating the scene over again. This was unnecessary, and should have been trimmed to make the plot flow more smoothly.
The dialogue also didn’t sound all that realistic to me, coming off as a tad stilted, and on a few occasions in the sections of the book set in the past, there were some oddly anachronistic phrases and concepts used; for example, there were several references to gravestones and buildings being damaged by “acid rain,” which as far as I’m aware wasn’t really a thing until the 1970s and was largely a product of industrialization. At one stage, the characters also seem to celebrate Christmas similarly to the way we do today, when generally, Puritans banned Christmas celebrations due to their pagan associations. Some non-Puritans in colonial America did have feasts and alcohol-fueled parties for Christmas on the down-low, but the modern conception of Christmas as a child-centered holiday focusing on gift-giving didn’t really become established until the nineteenth century.
There’s absolutely an awesome story in here, and I particularly liked the idea of the saintly and gracious Janette turning monstrously evil because of the amulet and the perception that others had wronged her or others in the village (though I thought the character actually went to the dark side far too quickly and easily; I felt there should have been more of a gradual downfall). But I’m sad to say that this needed a much more thorough vetting by an editor to bring out the terror and suspense inherent in the story, and to get rid of all the errors and extraneous detail that didn’t serve the plot.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.