Gods of Howl Mountain – Review

“Trees. You thought they were one shape, a tall stem snaked heavenward for sun, but you forgot what was below the surface, reaching into the dark earth. The cold earth. Reaching.”

Gods Of Howl Mountain is a dark, atmospheric novel telling the tale of a young whiskey-runner, returned home to the mountains after being wounded in the war. Set in the hills of North Carolina in the 1950’s, we are thrust into the lives of Rory and Granny May.

Rory runs whiskey for Eustace, the man who runs the mountain. A man no one would ever have crossed, or dared challenge. Times change, though, and new runners along with new federal agents make life increasingly difficult for Rory. It isn’t just the challenges, or his war injury that weigh Rory down. He won’t give up the search for the men who killed his father and knocked his mother mute, forcing her to live a life institutionalized.

“You don’t know what it took to raise this mountain against the world.”

Granny May worries for her grandson. Worries that the demons of not just his past, but his mothers and even Granny’s own will catch up with him. That he is chasing spirits that will bring nothing but bad tidings if they are caught. She wants to live simply, giving people remedies, working as a healer, living off the land. But she isn’t soft, and she won’t back down from a fight without giving it all she has.

Granny May is easily one of my favorite characters in the book. Tough, determined, full of spit and grit. She is highly observant, and brings a sharp humor with a no-nonsense attitude with her. She is vivid and alive, a character that you can fully envision standing on her porch, shotgun in hand.

“Death, which walked ever through these mountains, knew she would not go down easy.”

This is my first novel by Taylor Brown, and the writing is jaw-dropping gorgeous. It is lyrical and poetic, at times at odds with the grim subject matter he’s describing. These pages look at the underbelly of humanity. The darkness that lurks in beautiful places. It’s a haunting reminder that while we can look at a landscape and see the majestic beauty of mountains, the reality of surviving in those places is hard, unforgiving, unrelenting, and difficult. But it’s also the beauty of the writing that makes the sometimes violent, sometimes melancholic, sometimes horrifying imagery easier to stomach.

For some, this prose will be distracting. It took some time to fall into the story for me, the descriptions of the mountain and the cars so vivid, I forgot what I was reading, and had to reread sections to remind myself of the story. This is a novel, and writing style, that demands patience from the reader. You will enter a world of stark feeling and imagery while the plot unfolds at a slower pace around you. The characters taking longer to flesh out, to feel real.

“It was said that gravity was suspended at the mountain’s peak, and in the falling season the dead leaves would float upward from the ground of their own accord, purring through the woods, as if to reach again those limbs they’d left.”

If you’re looking for a novel that will sweep you away deep into what it must feel like to jump into a snapshot of the past, this novel will not disappoint. It’s an experience of the senses, rather than just an intellectual endeavor.

This sensory immersion is necessary though, to really drive you into the heart of the plot. You can’t unearth secrets and lies of the past without a sense of deep foreboding and the whisper of long buried heartbreak. Some truths unfurl slower, a poison through the veins rather than the gut punch to the stomach. And with the tragic love story at the middle of these secrets, this isn’t a story to shock, as much as it is one to feel.

“Sometimes she wondered how she had birthed a creature so beautiful and kind. So full of light. How she had failed to protect this creature from the evils of the lower world.”

Gods Of Howl Mountain isn’t a quick read. It isn’t a book you devour. This is a book you fall into. You let it sink in your mouth, a bite at a time, dissolving to become a part of you. It’s a book about grief, and heartbreak, love and loss. It’s about the violence of men, fighting wars that can’t be won and that they don’t understand. It’s about the strength of family and friendship, and what defines each. Finally, it’s a novel about trauma, tragedy, and truth.

Thank you NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for approving me to read and review a copy!

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