Book Review: The Night Will Find Us by Matthew Lyons

The Night Will Find Us by Matthew Lyons is a haunting thriller set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey that follows four friends on a camping trip that turns deadly as they all struggle to survive, find help, and avoid the killer who is still loose in the woods.

Teens go into the woods. Evil is in the woods. Our evil.

We’re gonna need a bigger ax.

OK, maybe blending Jaws and Evil Dead isn’t a good idea. Thankfully, Matthew Lyons has a better imagination than I, and his horror novel The Night Will Find Us, set in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, is a solid October read that will haunt you long after the fires of Hallow’s Eve burn out.

She used to watch Simon start fires with the hatchet. He’d had it made special so he could do just that, designed it himself with the blacksmith up in Mount Holly. It was a long, spindly thing with a thread of hard, ash-white flint embedded along the blade’s edge, the wood and metal stained dark with ink or coal ‘til the hatchet was so black, it nearly devoured the light. Mary had seen him use it a dozen times or more, catching a flame by striking stone or brick in just the right way, sending a spray of thick white sparks flying out like a fan. Simon had always liked fire, looked at it like he would an old friend. Maybe that should have been her first hint that there was something wrong with him.

The story begins in 1692, as New Jersey was colonized early on, and the villages closer to Philadelphia are some of the oldest. The story then shifts focus to the present as six teenagers celebrate their graduation with a jaunt into the woods to drink, shoot fireworks, and unbeknownst to the other five, look for one’s missing father who loved to camp and hike but disappeared into the woods several months ago. The teens, led by Chloe—cousin of Parker, whose father went missing—are familiar but not stereotypes. There’s Nate, the asshole who pushes the envelope to see what he can get away with; broody Parker; lovebirds Nicky and Josh; and the unlikely jock, Adam. It doesn’t unfold like your typical slasher story, though it has those underpinnings. You know nothing good will come of their camping trip.

They are not entirely oblivious to this fact, either, but also don’t reference horror films or go meta like in Scream. It’s the Pine Barrens, and while there’s no mention of the infamous Jersey Devil, there are plenty of references that will make those of us familiar with the legends—and the Barrens themselves—smile quite often. For example, old J.D. was supposedly the 13th child of one Mother Leeds, who cursed her pregnancy and was gifted with a monstrosity for her blasphemy, and there is mention of the Leeds family. The “Devil” is often spotted by the local circular, pale blue lakes known as “blue holes,” and sure enough, the teens encounter one with a much darker origin than limestone:

The lake was enormous, crystal blue, and perfectly circular, as if some cruel god had jabbed a finger into the surface of the earth, leaving a perfect divot in its wake.

The darkness in the forest influences them early on, urging an act of unexpected violence that spurs on the rest of the story. This sends the group into chaos and brings one of them face to face with the leached, foul secret in the heart of the Pine Barrens, which possesses one of them, tempts another, and gifts a third with brutal visions of past evils that haunt both them and the reader.

Hidden away in some barrow, curled up like a fist, all bones and tendons and wretchedly drawn angles, the bloody boy-thing slept. He dreamed of a voice like ice against his buzzing, blister-hot skin as the sun slid across the sky beyond the trees. It crawled out to soothe him from the tiny, impossible spaces that separated the particles in the air, caressing him with slithering, frost-rimed tendrils that coiled across his sweat-drenched flesh and sent chills through his strange new body, easing back the knives of the fever that had taken up residence throughout.

Author Matthew Lyons wrote “The Brothers Brujo,” a McCarthian noir (as in Cormac) that Roxane Gay selected for The Best American Short Stories 2018 after appearing in Tough Crime, the online crime magazine edited by Rusty Barnes and Tim Hennessy. The Night Will Find Us is more of a whimsical exercise in comparison, but on its own, it is a fun and haunting thriller that brings a teaspoon of cosmic dread to the Pine Barrens, a locale rarely written about in fiction outside an episode of The Sopranos and the crime stories of New Jerseyan Jen Conley. It is a welcome addition, and I burned through the book, drawn on by its compelling mysteries and its characters who are driven by grief and loss and not the mere needs of the plot.

It’s the perfect month to read it, and Lyons’s deft hand with the creepy tale will make you leery of visiting the pines any month of the year.

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