Review: Halcyon by Rio Youers
By Gabino IglesiasJuly 16, 2018
Halcyon by Rio Youers is a horror thriller about a cult-like community run by the enigmatic and terrifying Mother Moon.
Rio Youers’s Halcyon is a hybrid novel that brings together some of the best elements of psychological thrillers and action narratives and mixes them with a healthy dose of the paranormal, emotional grit, and a scathing look at contemporary life in America. Balancing heartbreak and hope along with a creepy atmosphere and plenty of violence, Halcyon has something for every kind of reader, and it elevates Youers not only as a writer of entertaining fiction but also as a smart, observant chronicler of this country’s societal ailments.
Halcyon is as much a place as it is a mental space. Geographically speaking, it’s a beautiful, secluded island in the middle of Lake Ontario that is dotted by cabins surrounded by big trees. Ideologically speaking, it is paradise—a self-sustaining community made up of people who crave healing and want to live in peace, far away from the senseless violence, crime, and continuous fear that characterizes life in the mainland.
Valerie Kemp, aka Mother Moon, runs the island, all in pursuit of Glam Moon, her version of heaven, which she thinks is achievable through pleasure. She is a woman with a dark past who hides an incredibly powerful darkness inside and possesses a special brain. Men and women fall for her warm smile and eventually end up doing whatever she asks. Those who can resist her and ask to leave Halcyon find the opposite of what the community offered them while they belonged to it.
Martin Lovegrove moves his two daughters to Halcyon after they go through a tragedy. He wants to be there six weeks to kickstart a new life after some healing away from everything they’ve always known. To make matters more complicated, Martin’s youngest daughter has a gift, something that is—as always—also a curse. After the family arrives at the island, Martin begins to suspect things are not exactly as they seem, and he tries to get to the bottom of it. What follows is a tense narrative about hidden agendas, strange ideas, religious fanaticism, and murder.
Halcyon occupies the interstitial space between mysteries and supernatural thrillers. Youers understands what works best in each of those genres, and he brings the elements together very well. The parts that have to do with hyperviolence and loss are tightly written and emotionally gritty. The passages dealing with the supernatural possess a different kind of prose that is packed with poetry and beautiful imagery.
Furthermore, Edith and Shirley, Martin’s daughters, occupy a unique space within the narrative, and their relationship is as strange as it is strong. Shirley is the quintessential teenager, always on her phone and in love with Instagram. Meanwhile, Edith has to live with her premonitions, which are often as dark as anything you can read in the news on a bad day. The sisters have a special connection that goes beyond words and that exists in a place outside this world. That connection is as interesting as it is bizarre, and Youers’s ability to juggle it along with everything else that is going on in this novel is a testament to his talent.
Perhaps the most important thing this novel accomplishes is presenting everyday life in a way that makes an escape such as Halcyon look like a good option. The author allows readers to see what’s behind the island early on, but he also presents what regular people have to live with regularly in a way that makes both options seem just as crazy and dangerous. This is what drives Martin to move to a place even when he recognizes that leaving everything behind and following a guy he only met once to a secret location while dragging his daughters with him is a foolish idea:
“Well, shit, I know it sounds crazy, but do you know what’s crazier? Sending my daughters to school in the morning and not knowing if they’ll make it home. Checking for suspicious packages every time I use public transit. Going to the movie theater and worrying that some dickless psychopath is going to start shooting the place up.”
Just like there is a balance between insane ideas, there is also a balance between the supernatural and the physical. There are plenty of deaths in this novel. Brutal deaths. The tragedy that hits the Lovegroves is a school shooting, and that’s only one instance of gun violence. Brutality permeates the novel and illuminates the darkness in humanity without mercy. When writing about the supernatural, about impossible spaces created by gifted minds and things that happen because of strange forces, the author takes his time. However, when writing about immediate violence, his prose becomes shorter and faster, almost as if the words match the actions:
Nolan stumbled backward. Doris lashed out with the shoe again but this time he caught her wrist. He squeezed and twisted, snapping the bone like a dry stick. Doris screamed. The shoe fell from her hand. Nolan picked it up and smashed the heel into her face several times. Blood and broken teeth leaked from her mouth. Her legs twitched.
Ultimately, Halcyon works because it is two important things at once. On one hand, it is an action-packed thriller that deals with loss, healing, family ties, and how the inner dynamics of families are thrown into chaos following a tragedy. On the other, it is a dark paranormal tale that stands on the line between hope and despair and shouts about the possibility of the grass not being greener on either side of the fence.