One of the emerging genres of the last few years has been folk horror. Books such as Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucy McKnight Hardy, Andrew Michael Hurley’s excellent trio of books The Loney, Devil’s Day and Starve Acre and Pine by Francine Toon are just a few examples of the superb books to be discovered within this genre. Even films, through the likes of Midsommar and The Witch have shown us the value of folk horror. The folk horror revival shows no sign of slowing and The Balance by Kev Harrison is another example of a superb piece of work in this remit.
The Balance is a reimagining of the Slavic folk tale of Baba Yaga, I wasn’t familiar with the story before reading this excellent novella. The story is centred around Natalia and her brother Kuba. After Kuba falls from a tree, breaking his leg, the prognosis isn’t good. There is a lack of medicine in the village and the doctor decides the leg must be amputated. Natalia, who is blamed by her mother for not watching her brother closely enough, feels awful. In her desperation to make it right, she seeks the help of a strange woman who lives in the woods, who some claim to be Baba Yaga, to help save her brother’s leg and possibly life. When the rest of the village finds out what she has done all hell breaks loose but you need to read the novella for yourself to find out more!
One aspect of this story which I absolutely adore is the setting. It is set in Cold War Poland, but in many ways, it feels much older than that. There is a mystical quality to the village which I really enjoyed. One doctor for everyone who lives there, a lack of medicine and the struggle to survive all highlight what life is like for the people who live there. The terrible snow drifts, which cut the town off, add to the creepy atmosphere and the sense of isolation. It is the perfect setting for this story. Kev Harrison has done a wonderful job to bring it to fruition, no doubt aided by his time spent living in Poland.
The characters are interesting but none more so than Baba Yaga. She has a sinister edge, despite never showing anything other than kindness to Natalia and Kuba. She has a mysterious relationship with nature, and it is never exactly clear why the villagers all fear and hate her so much. My only quarry with the characters is that I would have loved for Baba Yaga to have featured even more heavily in the telling of the story, but I understand why, given the narrative, this wasn’t really an option. The rest of the village are an intriguing cast of characters, Natalia’s mother ranges from a horrible bully to a gentle, frightened mother trying to protect her children. The doctor seems to have a kindness which many others in the village lack. It isn’t easy in a novella to get a reader to care about characters. You have less words for exposition and the story needs to keep moving but Harrison has done an excellent job with the pages he had to make the characters engaging and interesting.
One issue I did have with the book was that, on occasion, I felt that the dialogue was slightly clunky. It didn’t always flow as well as the rest of the book. It was never a massive issue and it didn’t pull me out of the story but every so often I found myself reading something a character said and questioning whether that is how they would have really reacted. I would like to reiterate that this was a very minor issue and didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book in any way, but over a longer format I could have seen how it might have caused more problems.
This book didn’t out and out scare me; however, the entire book has a superb, creepy atmosphere which stuck with me. The way this novella gets under your skin and disturbs really is brilliant. It is my favourite kind of horror. One scene, featuring a church, had my skin crawling and my mind whirring. It is a testament to the quality of the writing that this atmosphere is maintained throughout the book and there is no let up.
Kev Harrison has created an excellent horror novella. It is short, sharp and packs a punch. In an age where time seems hard to come by, this is the perfect experience for those of you looking for a fix of horror, but don’t feel like dedicating yourself to a 1000-page Stephen King epic. The writing is superb, the setting creepy and the characters wonderful. I wholly recommend that you check this book out.
I would like to thank Kev Harrison for sending me a copy of this book to review. It in no way affected my opinion of the book and the thoughts shared in the review are entirely my own.