What’s Eating Those Small-Town Teens?

In ‘Sawkill Girls’, Terror is Hungry

Something is hunting the girls of Sawkill Rock.

Everyone knows the island’s cliff areas are dangerous, and that the adjoining woods are home to plenty of wild animals. That’s why the spooky stories teens trade at parties about the “Collector” are just tall tales to most of Sawkill’s residents.

But Zoey doesn’t buy that her best friend Thora fell off a cliff or tangled with a pack of feral dogs. Thora was the last of 23 girls to vanish over the past few decades in Sawkill, “poor girls and rich girls. Black and brown and white girls. All of them Sawkill girls.”

Zoey’s convinced the culprit in Thora’s disappearance is impossibly perfect queen bee Val, who stole away Zoey’s BFF in a mean-girl friend-napping just a few months before she vanished for real. And she’s right, though certainly not in the way she imagines.

Claire Legrand author photo by Ellen B. Wright.

Claire Legrand will scare the bejesus out of you in Sawkill Girls, as it quickly becomes apparent that Val is the human host for a being that has very distinct eating habits. After decades of intermittent feasts, he’s started to accelerate feedings and get stronger.

Marion, the new-to-Sawkill daughter of Val’s family housekeeper, can tell something isn’t right on the island the first day she arrives. Offered a ride atop one of Val’s family horses, Marion immediately feels a headache that explodes down her spine before the horse rears up and takes off, eventually throwing her to the ground. Later, recuperating at home, she begins to gag and choke until she reaches into her mouth. “She tugged, and up it came–a long dark clump of hair, sliding up her throat…This was horse hair.”

Spooky, indeed. And Legrand amps up the fear factor by peppering her story with the literary equivalent of jump scares. Two teens are making out one minute, covered in fat black spiders that drop from the trees the next: “They crawled down Jane’s collar beneath her top, and they skittered across Harry’s lips. They gathered there in clumps, seeking entrance.”

Girls flouts both the teens-in-distress and Final Girl tropes. Zoey, Marion and even Val are warriors who dig deep to discover their own powers in the face of the evil swirling through Sawkill. But they’re also regular teen-agers, alternately brave and vulnerable. And their relationships run the gamut, from former lovers turned friends to girls exploring their undeniable attraction to each other.

At its black heart, though, Girls is a horror novel to read with the lights on. Like the best of early Stephen King, the book brings abject terror to small-town life. It’s to Legrand’s credit that it’s also full of strong girls – not just dead ones.

(Harper Collins, October 2, 2018)

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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