I’m not usually one to get involved in Halloween festivities, so this year I decided to celebrate the spooky season in my own quiet and antisocial way: reading scary books and listening to the Ghostbusters theme. Sadly, I was unable to perform both of these activities simultaneously, due to the fact that Ray Parker Jr.’s frankly iconic musical stylings are very amusing and my chosen novel, Daughters Unto Devils, was completely terrifying. Basically, it scared me as much as Dracula does and didn’t have half the campy distractions.
Amy Lukavics sets her novel during an unspecified historical period (I am guessing the mid-to-late 19th century), focusing on the Verner family through the voice of sixteen-year-old Amanda. With her parents and four younger siblings, Amanda makes the journey from a small mountain cabin to the prairie in the hope of a better life, leaving behind the secret lover who rejected her after finding out Amanda was pregnant. What awaits them is not exactly the happier future they imagined. The first part of the novel focuses closely on Amanda’s clandestine relationship, before moving onto her increasing concerns about her sanity and the safety of her family.
There were many moments during Daughters Unto Darkness which made my jaw drop and I wouldn’t want to deprive other readers of this experience by giving too much away here. Lukavics slowly drops in details throughout Amanda’s narrative, allowing us to see how much she has been holding back from those around her. Inside Amanda is being pulled apart by guilt: both for the illicit liaisons which would shame her family and the feelings she harbours about her youngest sister, Hannah, who was born deaf and blind and is continually tormented by her condition. There are several moments from the novel which will stay with me for a long time (hopefully not while I am trying to sleep) and quite a few of them involve Hannah; despite being just a baby, she is not spared the most unflinching aspects of Lukavics’ brand of horror, which only adds to the fear created, both for the characters and the reader. The supernatural elements of the story are subtly introduced before reaching genuinely chilling levels in the last third of the book. There was plenty that shocked me as the story progressed and I had to watch a lot of gentle children’s television with my daughter to recover.
Writing in The Guardian newspaper in the UK, Lukavics asked in an article about YA horror, “How do we handle feelings like shame, and guilt, and the understanding of how fragile sanity really is?” Daughters Unto Devils really pushes its protagonist in pursuit of an answer; Amanda’s suffering is palpable although she never becomes self-pitying and thus retained my sympathy. Daughters Unto Devils is as much a psychological horror story as a supernatural one and it’s easy for the reader to imagine their own reaction to what Amanda witnesses and experiences.
Lukavics’ skill as a writer is evident throughout the novel and it seems astounding to me that this is her debut, such is the confidence with which she tugs at her reader’s nerves throughout. Aside from the frightening (and believe me, they really are frightening) elements of Daughters Unto Devils, there is compelling family drama here too, with convincing sibling relationships; the almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia which Lukavics achieves challenges these bonds in dramatic but realistic ways. I don’t really know what I was expecting when I started reading. I was intrigued by both the cover art and the title, but these superficial elements of the novel pale in comparison to the quality of the storytelling. Daughters Unto Devils is really quite an extraordinary read, unlike anything else I’ve read in the YA bracket, and if you aren’t hiding behind a cushion by the end, you haven’t been paying attention.
Daughters Unto Devils will be available soon at Greenville Public Library. Reserve a copy today.