Sarah’s Cross: A Ghost Story
Dean M. King
Sarah’s Cross: A Ghost Story was published on February 28th, 2020 by Austin Macauley Publishers. I received a a copy from the publisher, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
There are no spoilers in my review beyond what is told in the synopsis.
Content Warning: Death of a child, blood, anti-Semitic minor character/reference
It is 1961 in Wisconsin’s vast Northwoods. Tommy Ryan was unprepared to meet a ghost—as if anybody could be, yet there she sat upon a birch log at the edge of the forest, anxious for Tommy to pull over, eager for him to understand and help. Tethered to the place where she died thirteen years ago, Sarah is unable to move on unless Tommy can help her reconnect with her mother, and solve the mystery of what happened to her soldier-father, who went missing in the Philippines during WWII.
But time is running out for Sarah. She has lingered too long, and now a dark and brooding entity is determined to take her into a place of utter desolation, and if necessary, anyone who gets in the way.
The experience of meeting Sarah was so extraordinary that Tommy didn’t see the fawn and he struck it when he turned into his driveway. Being the compassionate young man that he is, Tommy could hardly turn his back on the poor creature, and the experience of caring for the fawn, in many ways, parallels the kindness he shows to Sarah.
As Tommy investigates the events surrounding Sarah’s death, he discovers new friends and allies in a country veterinarian, an aged librarian, a hulking, yet sensitive proprietor of a salvage yard, and a small town newspaper reporter.
Set against the backdrop of Wisconsin’s vast Northwoods, a grand lake-home, and a small, rustic cabin, “Sarah’s Cross” is a tale of family tragedy and the kindness of a stranger who stands up to darkness when it comes claiming its victims.
The synopsis of this book promises so much, and with just 174 pages, it’s reasonable to be a little skeptical that the story will deliver. Fortunately and wonderfully, Dean M. King delivers on every aspect of Sarah’s Cross; the settings, the characters, the plot, and that spine-tingling uneasiness every effective ghost story inflicts.
Each location within this small town – whether it be the woods, our protagonist Tommy’s home, library archives, a junkyard, etc. – is described nearly perfectly. There is some minor fluff, but also so much substance in the author’s descriptions and the specific words he uses to create a sense of place. And these settings are what keep the story grounded – a supernatural story doesn’t have to take place in our real world, but it has the potential to be more chilling, more anticipatory, when the reader has to juxtapose the paranormal with familiar details of life outside the pages of a book.
Another aspect of Sarah’s Cross that makes it feel so grounded, so real, is the characters. We have so much insight on our main character, Tommy, nearly from the very beginning. But we also learn more about him as time goes on, and this use of gradual knowledge works quite well here, in terms of getting to know the character but also learning the “whys” of some of the events that take place. Right away, Tommy feels like a character that can be trusted; anyone who takes in a wounded [baby] animal with the intention of rehabbing it so it can return to the wild has my trust, anyway. And just as the synopsis says, this kindness does parallel that which he shows Sarah, but it also helps move the story along, once again, keeping one of its feet planted in reality.
We also get great insight into the minds and actions of the side characters. Dean M. King gives them plenty of life and their own personalities, which includes that of small town professionals and residents. The author does an exemplary job of making each side character their own person within the scope of this story, while not exaggerating their mannerisms or personas; these are in fact characters, not caricatures.
While there was one aspect of the ghost story and mystery that seemed obvious to me, even though our protagonist did not realize it until the end, this in no way hindered the effects of the story, because there is so much that wasn’t obvious. There are surprises at almost every turn, and each one builds upon the foreboding that comes to a head in a spectacular but terrifying way. Dean M. King keeps up such a great pace that there’s hardly time to feed any doubt about what’s happening; regardless of whatever fear is telling you, you just want to keep going. The author definitely carried out that satisfying, spectacular crescendo every scary story needs, and even more importantly: made it believable.
Mr. Sorenson says history is like a prism, because you see different things depending on which side you look through. The trick, he told us, is to look through as many sides as you can.
About the Author:
Dean M. King is an American author who lives with his wife, Kelly, and their son on Northeast Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers.
Dean finds inspiration for his stories in remote areas of Wisconsin’s vast Northwoods, on the islands that lay off its coasts, and among the stalwart bluffs of Southwest Wisconsin. Whether Dean is writing about a dreadful creature that crawled from the Mississippi River or a drag race between a street-toughened hoodlum and the devil, you can be sure—maybe even a little afraid—that his stories will haunt you long after you read the final page.
Dean has published several short stories in online and print venues. Sarah’s Cross is is his first novel. Find more information on the author and Sarah’s Cross here.