Epeolatry Book Review: The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste


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Title: The Haunting of Velkwood
Author: Gwendolyn Kiste
Genre: Gothic Fiction; Horror Literature and Fiction
Publisher: S&S/Saga Press
Release Date: 5th March, 2024

Synopsis: From Bram Stoker Award–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a chilling novel about three childhood friends who miraculously survive the night everyone in their suburban hometown turned into ghosts.
The Velkwood Vicinity was the topic of occult theorists, tabloid one-hour documentaries, and even some pseudo-scientific investigations as the block of homes disappeared behind a near-impenetrable veil that only three survivors could enter—and only one has in the past twenty years, until now.
Talitha Velkwood has avoided anything to do with the tragedy that took her mother and eight-year-old sister, drifting from one job to another, never settling anywhere or with anyone, feeling as trapped by her past as if she was still there in the small town she so desperately wanted to escape from. When a new researcher tracks her down and offers to pay her to come back to enter the vicinity, Talitha claims she’s just doing it for the money. Of all the crackpot theories over the years, no one has discovered what happened the night Talitha, her estranged, former best friend Brett, and Grace, escaped their homes twenty years ago. Will she finally get the answers she’s been looking for all these years, or is this just another dead end?
Award-winning author Gwendolyn Kiste has created a suburban ghost story about a small town that trapped three young women who must confront the past if they’re going to have a future. 

Kiste kept her page-turner relatable. She made it fun. And memorable. It hints at lies and secrets, which every good story has. Told in first person present, The Haunting of Velkwood is set in a “Vicinity” of eight houses built in 1988. Three eights. Any symbolism there? I’m always looking for signs and symbolism in ghostly tales. Maybe the trio of eight is an angel-number of prosperity, a sign that good things and good karma are headed your way. Perhaps it’s a toll free North American code to a helpline. On its own, the number placed vertically is the boundless infinity symbol (∞). Or it could simply be a coincidence by the author. 

Regardless of its meaning, I’m an ’80s child, and I love all nods to that era. Kiste kept it real with several mentions: Aqua Net hairspray kept my coif high and dry, and the pink can took up major real estate in my big Liz Claiborne bag (we wore green and yellow—gag me—uniforms at my private school, and the only way to standout in the school-girl mob was via the purse). I read Seventeen for the skincare and the fashion. I fanned through Tiger Beat for the posters and pics: my lust—John Schneider (he’s still a hottie) hung on my paneled bedroom wall. Was I the only weirdo who turned the posters around whenever I changed clothes, so John wouldn’t see my bits and pieces? Nope. Most of my friends confessed with laughter to doing the same. I went to the mall and scoped out guys in my mini dress. Montgomery Ward was where we bought appliances and jewelry. Ah… the memories. Thank you, Ms. Kiste.

Now, let’s talk about the number thirteen. Kiste describes Velkwood as a small subdivision consisting of thirteen people. The simple neighborhood could have been mine. It could have been much like yours. Could be anyone’s. The point is, it’s not really all that unique, except that it’s caught in a ghostly veil which no one can enter. 

Meet the child Talitha (Talitha, an unusual name, Arabic for “rise child”) Velkwood, her family being the first to build, and thus the ones for whom the street and subdivision are named. Fast forward twenty years and meet Talitha, a middle-aged woman who wants to forget the house and the childhood that has essentially, so it seems, forgotten her. Except it hasn’t.  

Irony abounds in this ghostly haunt where Talitha wants to fix the wrongs of the past. But once she makes her way inside her time-trapped neighborhood, she must find a way to escape it. Talitha and her girlhood besties ran around breaking the established rules of the day while trying not to get caught, yet failing. Caught has a double meaning here—caught as in discovered, and caught as in trapped. We’ve all gotten stuck in the past and faced regrets. We’ve all left home and at some point, wanted to go back. Then there’s the one who got away, or the friend we left behind or abandoned, or the relationship we might have squandered. Secrets are harvested and canned, put on basement shelves, forgotten under a layer of dust. At some point we remember them, and descend into that dark damp space where they’ve been stored, determined yet hesitant to crack open the seal. And once down in that moldy basement, you might come across a few bugs.

Centipedes and ants and other creepies crawl across the pages, their antenna sensing demise and mortality. They devour the falling and the fallen, consuming the rot of the dead and the ruin of the living, much like the battlefield of our past. 

Here, our heroine realizes that nothing can change the past. Too busy running from phantoms, she can only escape her ghosts by confronting them. And not every ghost is a poltergeist. Talitha shows us that you don’t always have to be afraid. Let the shadows of your history teach you a thing or two, and then maybe you can choose a different direction to crawl out from under its weight. Good advice, right? Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge thought so, too. (Pardon me, Gwendolyn Kiste and Talitha Velkwood, but I couldn’t help making the comparison.)

Now, about that name…

Spoiler alert—it’s the perfect choice for a character who helps raise another from the dead. In fact, I had to ask the author if there was symbolism behind our heroines’ moniker. Kiste replied, “I remember hearing the name Talitha when I was younger, and I always thought it was such a fabulous, unique name. I’ve never seen it used in a story before, but it’s one that stuck with me, so it was really fun to create a character that felt like a perfect fit for that name.”  Agreed.

For those of you who might have read Kiste’s novel, The Rust Maidens, there is a connection between that and The Haunting of Velkwood—Case Western Reserve is the school Phoebe was to attend in The Rust Maidens. It’s the same college that Jack—Velkwood researcher, theorist and enabler—attended.  

For those of you who haven’t read any of Kiste’s works, please do. I’m certain that one of them will resonate with you, like The Haunting of Velkwood did for me. And like me, you’ll find yourself engaged, looking for symbolism and signs and meanings while wondering, What’s the takeaway here? Besides the conclusion I’ve already drawn, hopefully you’ll come away with at least this much—Kiste is a damn good story teller!


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