If you like your reading material dark with atmosphere as thick as Appalachian forests and with as many twists and tilts as Appalachian mountain roads then I recommend the Skull Ring by Scott Nicholson. The Skull Ring is horror/thriller of fine caliber that does a great job of blurring the lines between reality and insanity in the mind of the main character Julia Stone.
The story opens with Julia Stone deep in a disorienting “episode”. We learn right away Julia’s mental state is shaky to say the least; as she is haunted by confusing memories of a terrible night when her father disappeared long ago. Julia finds wooden children’s blocks set out on her coffee table, spelling her name how her estranged father used to call it. Poor Julia is in a state of self induced panic, fearing “Creeps” or nameless men waiting for her everywhere even in the darkness of her sanctuary. At the peak of her panic attack a knock on her door introduces us to Walter the handyman. As the second character we meet he begins the never ending struggle to determine who is good and who is evil in Julia Stone’s dark world. From this point out Mr. Nicholson does a masterful job of blurring the lines of his characters, keeping us turning pages and guessing “bad guys” as we go.
Haunted by re-emerging terrible visions and memories she has recently moved from the hustle and bustle of busy Memphis to the slow woodsy Elkwood. She left a fiancé, Mitchell, and a high stress, high energy job at the Memphis paper behind as she fled to the quiet mountain town. Julia is seeing a new doctor, Dr. Forrest, and together they are beginning to unravel the mysteries and terrors of the long ago night Julia lost her father and acquired two long straight scars on her abdomen.
Dr. Forrest begins hypnotizing Julia to bring the memories from her dark and twisted mind. We learn the night of Julia’s father’s disappearance there was held a ritual in the name of Satan. Images swim through her troubled mind of robe wearing creeps chanting, burning incense, and doing terrible things to her. One image sticks out to her than all the rest. The hand that cut the deep scars along Julia’s rib cage wore a skull ring, with violent ruby eyes that glowed furiously. All of these visions center around her families former farm house on the out skirts of Memphis.
Julia returns to Memphis to explore to the farm and try to sort out horrific memories. She meets up with the cold and powerful Mitchell and learns more about him than she ever could imagine. A friend at her former Memphis newspaper office helps her discover several twisted clues to not only Julia’s troubled memories but a massive Satanic conspiracy. Realizing her memories are bigger than she once thought Julia enters the barn where all the horror happened and she is transported to the middle of a Satanic ritual complete with blood sacrifice and dismembered goat’s head. She searches her former house and finds the skull ring that once eyed her with furious red rubies and carved her flesh.
As Julia returns to Elkwood she begins to understand the truth of her reality the haziness of the entire cast of characters becomes clearer. Julia sees the true sides and motives of everyone around her as the story gallops through twists and revelations to the tense climax.
I would honestly side this story more as a thriller than a straight up horror. The story builds with the feel of a dark, evil mystery unraveling around Julia. There are good solid scares but they are mostly in Julia’s tortured mind. I must say I think the way Mr. Nicholson handled Julia’s intense memories and deep feelings of panic, despair, and paranoia were masterful. As her mind begins to clear the story its self becomes clearer and the arc and transformation pulls you in and involves you in the story. The Skull Ring is the second book I’ve read and enjoyed by Scott Nicholson and I think he is a great talent within the thriller genre.
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