For the first time, I’ve read a self-published novel, The Four Before Me by local author E.H. Night. The novel is set in the 1980s, and is about a woman, Alice Foster, who moves to a new town where four women have gone missing. The townsfolk seem to think there’s nothing much ado about it, but then, Tiffany, Alice’s neighbor, finds a body near a lake, confirming what Alice, and Blake Darrow, a local detective, already suspected. That’s one of the best scenes early on is when Tiffany does discover the body and we get the description of “corpse flies” all up in Tiffany’s face. I read that chapter a week ago and I still think about it. It makes my skin crawl.
Night said she was inspired for this novel by B-level horror films, and the whodunit mixed with the horror elements of the novel certainly lend to that inspiration. I could see this novel playing out at a drive-in theater in the 1980s as fog creeps up the big screen. The 1980s setting works well here (in general, I’m a sucker for horror set in any time period prior to cell phones and modern time in general), particularly because of another element that works well here, and wouldn’t quite work if set in 2020: The gossipy hair salon. Alice finds work there, and it’s through the hair salon, that helps create one of the best characters in the novel, the small town of Wintersburg itself.
The reason people gravitate toward Stephen King novels or an episode of NBC’s Dateline is for the character of a small town where things are seedy beneath the small town’s charm veneer. There’s hints of that here, even beyond the fact of four disappearances, with the Sheriff letting Kirt’s Pub operate a bit below the bounds of the law, or that Benji, who is a fantastic red herring for the killer, exists in this town. Or the boys going around town accosting Will, Betty’s (the mother of Sarah, one of the missing girls) brother, who is someone with an intellectual disability. Or even the fact of the women being so dang gossipy and nasty at the salon.
The other characters are drawn out well, too. Alice is an earnest person, but as is mentioned and demonstrated throughout, she’s rather absent-minded and in some ways, a bit too trusting; one might even say naive. On the other hand, Tiffany is more care-free, but assertive. Her murder later on was hard to take, especially because Night did a great job of fooling me. So, the two girls are having a night out at the Pub, then go home to Tiffany’s. But whoops! They’ve forgotten what they need to make sundaes. Being inebriated, Alice decides to walk back to the grocery store leaving Tiffany alone. That’s when you think something is going to happen to Alice. Instead, she runs into Darrow and they have a playful whip cream scene in his car. Then, they both come back to Tiffany’s to find her clinging to life before dying. It’s well-done subversion by Night.
Speaking of Darrow, he is the stoic detective trying to solve the case, but also, there’s cracks in his facade as he falls for Alice. As mentioned, we get the whip cream scene, but before that, we learn that Darrow has a goofy love of funnel cakes. Will is also well-drawn, even if a peripheral character for the first half of the book. We learn that he roams around with a red wagon, loves Elvis (and will lose his mind if you tell him Elvis is actually dead), and also, has a thing for Wonderbread. It’s those sort of details that memorable characters are built upon.
Welp, turns out Will is in fact the killer. I pride myself on being adept at figuring out the whodunit before the author reveals it, and I have to admit, I didn’t suspect Will! I thought he and Eric, a guy Tiffany thinks is suspicious at the diner where she works, and Darrow later learns was cheating on his girlfriend with Jennifer Roberts, one of the missing girls, were both red herrings. Like I said, I also figured Benji was, too. After all, we see pretty early on that Benji drugs Alice (although she never does find out!), but I figured he was just a run-of-the-mill scumbag. It did surprise me later when he tries to kill Alice, and like Will (and Betty) is delusional in thinking Alice is Sarah. That was another one of the I-have-to-read-this-very-fast-to-see-what-happens scenes in the book. Benji was a scary, scary character, even if not the true killer. It’s that unpredictable, crazy menace that scares me.
Everyone is delusional in this town! But honestly, I feel stupid saying this now, but I thought the real killer was going to be Darrow! They always say it’s someone close to the case, and he was also sketchy about having other cops poking around on the case. And also, he would be able to get close to those women without them thinking it’s anything odd.
So, Night got me on that one, and she also surprised me further by, as I teased, having Betty be part of it and covering it all up ostensibly to protect her brother, but I think she’s also a psychopath. It’s all rather creepy. Oh, and disgusting. Betty makes pork sandwiches, and turns out, a lot of the pork was mixed with the dead bodies of the girls, and the town was probably eating human pork sandwiches. YUCK.
The most cinematic, skin-crawling scene is when Will and Betty have captured Alice, and thinking they’ve gotten one over on Darrow, they throw a dance party, and have Alice cosplaying as Sarah dancing around like a “water-logged Raggedy Anne doll.” Eek.
Darrow almost seems to have sympathy for Will because Will was basically trying to recapture and reclaim his mother, Judy, after her death to cancer. So, he sought out women’s hair that looked like his mother’s brown hair, but when the women would cry out, the sound would scare Will, and he’d end up killing them. For starters, Night does a great job layering in Will’s background on top of what I already mentioned for his characterization before, and sometimes less is more when it comes to killers to be horrifying, and sometimes, more is … uh, more, to be horrifying, and this works out to the latter. The more you learn about Will, the creepier it all becomes (like him rocking in that chair in the basement). But I’m not sure I share Darrow’s sympathy or understanding. Will was quite cognizant of luring these women to him, and quite cold once he had killed them. I hold more contempt for Betty because she absolutely knows better, but Will is still worthy of scorn.
And then Night got me further by connecting the dots between Susan, Alice’s grandmother, and Betty and Sarah. It turns out that Betty was Alice’s mom, but Betty gave her up to be raised by Susan. And Susan knew about the killings or at least knew about one of them and kept that secret. Believe it or not, I had actually forgotten about the train prologue scene with Susan at the beginning of the book! Then, when it started being explained, it was like, oh wow, this town really is seedy. So many dark, awful secrets under the surface. Once Susan learns that Sarah has been killed by Will, too, that’s when she walks in front of the train.
There are two lingering thoughts I have: 1.) I don’t believe Roger, who is the other sibling to Will and Betty, didn’t know what was going on with them. Remember, he’s the landlord and he was supposed to fix Alice’s backdoor and apparently, did a poor job of doing so, to the extent that Darrow noticed. I also am not sure I believe Roger’s story about the baseball bat being the reason Will is as he is. Even Alice questions that story; and 2.) What about Tiffany?! When Darrow interrogates Will, who is delusional and acting like his mother Judy, “Judy” makes a point of saying that Will didn’t “kill that redhead,” meaning Tiffany. He was over there the night she died, but got scared and left because of a knocking on the door. So, who killed Tiffany?! Was it Eric, the man she was suspicious of? Is it Roger? Or someone else altogether? I need a sequel!
Night’s writing really flourishes during the creepier, more horrific scenes. The corpse flies, the dance party, and the human pork sandwiches are going to stick with me for a long time to come. But also, her writing exceeds in a different way when she’s inside Alice’s head, who is an interesting character you’re rooting for despite those naive elements there. You want her to survive, of course, but you also want her to solve the whodunit, too. I’m also impressed by how layered the story ended up being. There’s more going on here than a whodunit. There’s a few false climaxes, where you think, oh okay, that’s it, and then there’s more, and then another false climax, and then more. There’s a lot to unpack here, or as the tagline suggests, a lot to unbox. And one final, small thing, I laughed at the dedication, “To those who cheered me on, even though I specifically said to be quiet so I could write.” Bravo to the silence where the darkness is the loudest and spills onto the page. It spilled well here, and I’m glad to have finally taken a leap, as it were, into reading a self-published novel.
Overall, if you’re into whodunits and horror, then you’re going to want to give this one a whirl through Wintersburg. You won’t regret it, but you may be itching from those corpse flies buzzing around. Also, leave those dang sandwiches alone. You can find a link to the book here.