Published June 2, 2023 by Macfarlane Lantern Publishing A cynical twentysomething must confront her unconventional family’s dark secrets in...

Review || Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison

Published June 2, 2023 by Macfarlane Lantern Publishing

A cynical twentysomething must confront her unconventional family’s dark secrets in this fiery, irreverent horror novel from the author of Such Sharp Teeth and Cackle.

Nobody has a “normal” family, but Vesper Wright’s is truly…something else. Vesper left home at eighteen and never looked back—mostly because she was told that leaving the staunchly religious community she grew up in meant she couldn’t return. But then an envelope arrives on her doorstep.

Inside is an invitation to the wedding of Vesper’s beloved cousin Rosie. It’s to be hosted at the family farm. Have they made an exception to the rule? It wouldn’t be the first time Vesper’s been given special treatment. Is the invite a sweet gesture? An olive branch? A trap? Doesn’t matter. Something inside her insists she go to the wedding. Even if it means returning to the toxic environment she escaped. Even if it means reuniting with her mother, Constance, a former horror film star and forever ice queen.

When Vesper’s homecoming exhumes a terrifying secret, she’s forced to reckon with her family’s beliefs and her own crisis of faith in this deliciously sinister novel that explores the way family ties can bind us as we struggle to find our place in the world.

As a fairly recent newcomer in the horror scene, Rachel Harrison made her debut with The Return in 2020. The subsequent releases of Cackle in 2021, and 2022's Such Sharp Teeth and Bad Dolls have made it abundantly clear that she doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon. Zombies, witches, werewolves, possessed dolls, and magic 8-balls have all been story fodder so it only seems natural that her next step would be Black Sheep's cult.

Having left her intensely religious family and community, Vesper is attempting—with questionable resultsto make it on her own. The night she's fired from her waitressing job, she discovers an envelope at her door containing an invitation to the wedding of her cousin and childhood best friend, Rosie, to Brody, the only guy she ever loved. When Vesper left the church six years ago, she was told she would essentially be dead to them and could never return. Understandably stunned and unsure of who sent the missive or their motives, she makes the decision to go to the wedding, mostly out of spite for the couple. 

Going back home is a perplexing experience for Vesper. Not only does she have to grapple with her emotions about the marriage and the couple, but she also has to confront her unconventional family and community. Her cold disapproving mother is a scream queen idol that never showed her affection. Her father, whom she adored, abandoned her at a young age when all she wanted was someone to love her. Being home, she is confronted again with these things, as well as her skepticism about religion and her disdain for the seemingly mindless religious devotion of those around her.  

While there's no denying given the subject matter that horror is Harrison's genre, her stories lean heavily on a first-person narrative as they navigate complex relationships and emotional trauma. Black Sheep is no different. Harrison renounces the superficial female archetype and instead constructs strong, memorable, and relatable protagonists. Her characters are refreshingly raw and authentic. Unrestrained and sometimes even ugly, we gain a front-row seat to their motivations, perspectives, and, most significantly, their apprehensions and insecurities. If Vesper's irreverence and quick wit doesn't instantly charm you, hang in there; building genuine characters takes time.

Along with her protagonist being so well-fleshed, Harrison creates an uneasy atmosphere that gets more and more ominous, even if you aren't yet quite sure why. As Vesper revisits her childhood home and reconnects with her past, she can't help but notice the stark distinction between the memories of her youth and the present. Through a mix of humorous and sobering observations, she slowly pieces together the truth about her family and the place she once called home. She is forced to confront the ugliness of her past which ultimately leaves her with a frightening sense of clarity and understanding. Once all the pieces lock into place, you can't help but rally around Vesper before it all comes crashing down. 

Having previously described Harrison's Such Sharp Teeth as "cozy horror", I would say that this entry is equally approachable for those that like their horror spooky but not too dark. However, seasoned horror enthusiasts may find the time spent on character development, the slow start, and the minimal blood and guts too mild. Although I enjoyed reading Black Sheep, I must admit that I was hoping for some unforeseen revelations or turns in Harrison's story. If you plan on reading Black Sheep when it's released, I would highly recommend going in blind, which is why this review is relatively vague. Even though I predicted the twist, I don't want to ruin the experience for readers who may not.   

With the ability to take clich├ęd tropes that have been used countless times before and infuse them with fresh and invigorating energy, I can't wait to see what subject Harrison tackles next. Overall, Harrison's newest horror entry Black Sheep is a compelling and entertaining read—a delightfully diabolical contemporary horror and another win for Rachel Harrison.