Halcyon by Rio Youers is an intense and timely horror-thriller that tackles an issue which tears at the fibre of America: domestic terrorism. Indiscriminate mass killings, especially a school shooting, are important components of the plot. They aren’t, however, its theme. Author Youers chooses to focus on the motivations and manipulations that galvanise individuals to commit acts of terror. He deftly delves into the psyches of tortured and conflicted characters, making their despicable actions comprehensible but not defensible.
For example, Valerie Kemp, the story’s primary antagonist, has an excruciatingly painful backstory. She was physically and emotionally abused by a cult of deranged sadists. The severely damaged Valerie survives the four-year assault and transforms herself into a Charles Manson-like messianic figure known as Mother Moon. The charismatic leader outwardly preaches an agenda far different from what she covertly practices. On the idyllic island called Halcyon, Moon’s followers reside in apparent communal harmony and well-being. A parallel narrative concerning a family grappling with their young daughter’s horrifying prophetic visions, dominates the book’s early chapters. The Lovegrove family’s destiny becomes intertwined with Mother Moon’s.
Martin Lovegrove is enticed to move to Halcyon by one of Moon’s acolytes. Lovegrove and his daughters, teenager Shirley and her younger sister Edith, are trying to mend from a calamitous event that irrevocably alters their lives. Though initially reluctant to give up conveniences such as cell phones, the girls adapt to the seemingly utopian commune. Shirley readily forges a bond with Mother Moon. Edith’s night terrors abate, so she feels no need to routinely employ a default mental escape mechanism. The budding bliss is eroded when Martin uncovers unsettling paraphernalia from Moon’s life as Valerie.
The novel moves along at a splendid clip despite a myriad of subplots and peripheral personages. The Lovegrove girls are pivotal to the plot and very intriguing characters. Shirley has an inherent dark side that is ramped up by tragedy, and the jealousy she feels about the attention Edith garners. Edith is a sensitive child beset by psychic images of carnage. What she sees are like jigsaw puzzle pieces; fragments of a whole that make interpretation tricky.
Ultimately, it’s Valerie/Mother Moon who dominates the novel. The trajectory of her metamorphosis from victim to villain is painful to read, but it’s difficult to turn away. Youers’ prose holds us against our will. That’s powerful writing, indeed.
The tale taps into uncomfortable truths. As Valerie/Mother Moon ruminates “And of course, desperate people were the easiest to control. This was Halcyon’s artifice: a community of broken, shapeable individuals, looking to tether themselves to something they could believe in.” While her conclusion states nothing new or earth-shattering, there’s no denying its veracity. Halcyon, the book, as well as Halcyon, the place depicted in it, sagely addresses the desolation of the disenfranchised and bereft; individuals integrated into American culture yet marginalised. Rio Youers’ admirable novel is simultaneously edifying and entertaining.
Reviewed by Sheila M. Merritt