Wolf Hollow is a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere that always seems to get what it needs. Unfortunately what it needs most is The Whisper Killer, a young serial killer on the run from the authorities who is more than meets the eye and who finds himself on a collision course with a vengeful band of thugs out to decimate the entire population of Wolf Hollow. Along the way the titular killer– real name Ben (and sometimes Jack)– bonds with the townsfolk and becomes hopelessly entangled in their lives despite his need to remain inconspicuous and keep moving to avoid capture.
This novel is particularly tough to review. It’s generally well written and moves along at a good clip which belies its 400-page length. It does manage to evoke some of the small-town charms and coming of age tropes which are the hallmarks of Stephen King, and there are a few haunting scenes strewn throughout. The problem is that character development is one-sided and the stakes never feel particularly high because the ambitions of the antagonists are unreasonable and at odds with their bumbling nature.
The leader of the villains’ gang, Caleb Grieger, is established well at the beginning of the book as he heartlessly murders his entire family and burns his own house down, but from that point on he becomes a bit of a joke. Caleb’s motivations are shaky at best and poorly described– ostensibly he feels like he’s been forced from the town, but we learn that the community banded together to buy his property from him so that he would leave them in peace. The fact that he feels a burning need to kill the whole town feels lopsided even if it’s meant to be explained by his lunacy. His plan to rob every house and kill everyone in Wolf Hollow seems like it should be the stuff of nightmares until the action begins and we’re introduced to his crew, the most formidable of which is nicknamed Spooky Joe and who is, despite the somewhat silly nickname, a high point. The rest of the handful of baddies are generic heist mooks who are dispatched by Ben in what feels like minutes and after not honestly accomplishing much of their goal.
Don’t get me wrong, the villains do kill a half dozen people or so, but a lot of these killings are either off-screen and described only vaguely or are incredibly abrupt and rushed. That’s not to mention the fact that, save for one major character death, everyone the villains kill is a noncharacter, a name which has maybe been mentioned once or twice but who has no real part in the story. It makes it very difficult to be invested in the peril, as it genuinely doesn’t feel like the characters we got to know are in much if any danger. This is compounded by the fact that Jack, the murderous spirit entity possessing Ben’s body, is so much more competent than they are. Even Poppy, the abusive boyfriend character we encounter just before the major confrontation, is scarier than Caleb Grieger and his gang– although that could be because he was a more grounded and realistic sort of evil.
The Whisper Killer also takes a bit too long to get off the ground. The first 60% or so of the book is just about Ben interacting with the town, and the characters we spend the most time with are either left out of the final conflict or show up for the briefest possible assists before being quickly ushered away. The vendetta in the snowstorm is heavily foreshadowed and built up to be an apocalyptic event, but it just isn’t enough of a payoff for the length of time we’ve spent building to it. It’s also kind of a shame that we don’t get to spend much time with Jack, who primarily exists as a voice in Ben’s head, because he’s a fun and light-hearted character if ever a serial killer could be. What this book needed was another hundred or so pages in which the town really falls apart and during which we get to see more of Jack and Ben working together as they do in the final kill. The extra space could also have given us a more developed, scarier host of villains and a better look at the mystical elements of the town. Unfortunately, as is, the book feels uneven and as though the most important parts were rushed.
Rating 5 out of 10 victims