Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)

A fading horror author hurts his back and finds himself in a posh retirement home for the wealthy called “Winter’s Garden.” The beautiful name masks its morbid implications; it’s where residents spend the last days of their lives, withering away. “In Winter’s Garden” by Mark Hurst follows the protagonist Bernard C. McMasters, who is convinced that the doctors and nurses at his new place of residence are vampires. Why else would they need to draw vials of blood from the residents every week? However, everyone, including his daughter, believes the writer is letting his wild imagination get the better of him.

While readers may have doubts about reading horror fiction with an aging or dying hero, Mark Hurst’s way with words conjures up a vivid world filled with sinister creatures. The book has quite the perfect setting for a horror novel – a retirement home away from civilization, with cold nurses who seem to be sucking the life out of their old patrons. The prose makes it easy to imagine the Victorian-era buildings and premises of Winter’s Garden. One scene where Bernard discovers a secret pathway to a sinister underground tunnel harboring a monster reminded me of “Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets”, you’d think a huge basilisk would spring out the dark corners and devour someone.

Like his last novel, “The Long View,” the author keeps the character roster short, so readers never get confused between who is who. Bernard’s fraught relationship with his daughter Rosie is done well. Despite being neglected for most of her childhood and growing up years, Rosie does her best to keep things cordial and always checks up on her father. The author befriends a bunch of interesting senior citizens at the retirement home, and Ruby the ballet dancer was the most fun one in the group. A ballet dancer when she was young, Ruby sounds like the kind of person you’d want to age into – still light on your feet, optimistic, cheery, and charming. There’s a mysterious character called the Colonel, who made for an interesting addition towards the second half of the novel. Even though his character makes only a brief appearance, he seems to have a strong hold over the protagonist and serves as his motivation to fight the demons at Winter’s Garden.

Having read some of Mark Hurst’s previous works, I was hoping for a lot more blood, gore, and demons in this novel. Instead, it was a slow-burn horror fiction with just enough graphic content to make you squirm a little. Obviously, since the protagonist isn’t a strong healthy man, the action sequences are limited, but while some parts seem implausible, other scenes seem painfully real. Like Bernard struggling breathlessly to climb a flight of stairs while being chased, or nearly passing out while running on the treadmill. It took me a few days to finish the novel, but it was gripping until the end. There is a sneaky, surprising twist towards the end, and the climactic scene keeps things satisfactorily open-ended.

It’s a 4 out of 5 from me.

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