Verdict: While BEYOND THE CLEARING may have a lot of interesting characters and a few interesting ideas, it treads far too much heavily trodden ground, and its thrills are not as thrilling as promised.
To mourn their dead friend Diane, a group of three women go to pamper themselves at the incredibly swank and new-agey Serenity Resort. But Serenity Resort is a pretty suspicious place, and not just because of the 6 a.m. wake-up calls and the fact that they don’t serve alcohol. There’s a strange supernatural force that lives on the grounds, a demon that lures people into a cave, and immerses people in a virtual reality full of beautiful lies while it slowly eats them alive.
Robin Mahle’s BEYOND THE CLEARING is, more than anything, a story about three friends (or really, four, counting Diane.) The fantasy/horror elements are there, but part of their function seems to be to tie into the novel’s themes. On the one hand, this is sort of refreshing, and the triangular relationship is interesting: Rachel, the happily married sort of “older sister” of the group; Maggie, the single and somewhat wilder one; and Susan, who sort of falls between the two.
But while BEYOND THE CLEARING could be read as a decent character piece about three women at the crossroads of their lives, as well as sort of a subtle satire of new-agey-ness, one dimension in which this book sort of disappoints is as a horror/thriller novel. The suspense is just never there: despite all the trials and tribulations the women endure, they never really seem to be in any real danger. (Not to give too much away, let’s just say that where there are demons, it turns out there are also angels.) The demon, with its combination of simulated life and brain-draining, is also all too generic, going places that many horror films, and Steven Moffat-penned episodes of Doctor Who, have been before. The chapters chronicling the resort’s attempts to cover up the supernatural happenings are both funny and slightly Kafkaesque, but this plotline is pretty underutilized, which seems a tragically missed opportunity for some good old-fashioned psychological horror.
While BEYOND THE CLEARING may have a lot of interesting characters and a few interesting ideas, it treads far too much heavily trodden ground, and its thrills are not as thrilling as promised: the monster works well as a metaphor and as a way to reveal characters, but not so well as a monster.
Reviewed by Charles Baker for IndieReader.