The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle is a YA horror novel set in the Amish community, and it’s one of the most genuinely frightening books I’ve read in a long time. It’s far more scary than some adult horror novels I’ve read, and it doesn’t rely on themes like sexual violence or violence against children to be frightening. It’s also incredibly well-executed and uses the choice of setting (a small Amish community) to amplify the terror in a way that’s both unique and effective.
I want to warn readers that this book is the first book in a duology, and while it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, you will need to read the second book to get resolution. I’ve got it downloaded and ready to go, but haven’t started it yet.
The novel follows Katie, a young Amish woman who has reached the age when she can go on Rumspringa, a period of time when young Amish adults can go and live in the “outside” world and determine if they want to leave the community or become baptized into the church. Katie is looking forward to experiencing this with her crush, Elijah, a young man that she suspects she will marry when they eventually return to the Amish community. She wants to do things like see a movie, drink a Coca-Cola and read Wonder Woman comics.
When the novel opens Katie is talking to an “outsider” (a non-member of the Amish community) Mrs. Parsall. As they talk they notice a medical helicopter flying too low overhead and watch as it crashes into the field. Katie’s family and their neighbors manage to put out the fire it causes, but the pilot doesn’t survive. Mrs. Parsall tries to reach emergency services on her cellphone, but finds the number to be busy. Later, when she’s leaving, Mrs. Parsall hears on her car radio that a curfew is in effect for the area, and decides to spend the night with Katie’s family.
This is where the choice to have a horror novel set within the Amish community is so excellent because it limits the characters’ (and readers’) information about what’s going on–and frankly not knowing exactly what’s happening is a more effective horror device than seeing the bogeyman right on the page, in my opinion.
Something in the outside world is obviously happening–no 911 service, a mandatory curfew–but because the Amish have no phones, radio or television, they don’t know what that thing is. Some large scale event is taking place, but living without technology and isolated from the rest of the world, Katie and her community have missed the short window in which they might have found out what that event was. Mrs. Parsall acts as their conduit to the outside world, but she’s limited to a cellphone and a car radio, and by the time they realize something very wrong might be happening, communications are limited due to an overtaxed cellular network and a vague emergency broadcast on the radio. One plot hole that did bother me was that Mrs. Parsall apparently didn’t have a smart phone that could use a cellular network to reach the internet. Since she could occasionally make calls out, I would assume she could also occasionally get online, and since the book was written in 2012 it felt weird that she couldn’t access the internet (or didn’t think to) on her cell.
Eventually Katie and Elijah venture outside to look for his two brothers who didn’t return home the night before. In town they find buildings and cars abandoned, some of the cars burned or left on the highway as if their owners suddenly fled. There is no sign of life.
The scariest part of The Hallowed Ones is the unknown–what happened to the outside world and will it invade the Amish community? Eventually we do get details as to what happened, but the build up is slow and terrifying. At one point Katie sees an unfamiliar horse running through their field and stops it. The horse is saddled, but to Katie’s horror, only a severed foot remains in the stirrup.
Because Katie is Amish, she’s unfamiliar with horror movies or their conventions. She and the members of her community aren’t thinking The Walking Dead so much as the idea that God may have forsaken the outside world. They turn inward, rejecting any contact with the outside world and becoming even more conservative in their faith, which adds another layer of fear to the novel.
Katie is afraid of what is happening outside her community, but she’s just as afraid of what her own people are doing out of a sense of terror. When they find a young man unconscious and bleeding outside their fence line, the Elders decide to leave him there to die–a choice Katie feels is morally unconscionable. She rescues the young man and hides him in her barn, aware that if she is found with him she could be banished.
As her community grows more afraid, members become more conservative in their beliefs. Elijah decides to skip Rumspringa and become baptized into the church, expecting Katie to do the same and then marry him immediately. He becomes controlling and frightening to Katie.
So we have lots of layers of horror here that are playing wonderfully into each other. First is the “WTF is going on outside” terror. Contagion? Zombies? War? Invasion of the Lizard People? The only clues we have to this mystery are what Katie is able to glean from her brief, secret trips into town (mostly to find supplies) and from the limited information Mrs. Parsall is able to provide via her cellphone.
Then we have the fear of a community becoming even more insular and reacting to an outside threat in ways that limit the freedoms of its members. Katie is being pressured to marry Elijah quickly (something her parents would not have stood for before, but now pressure her to do). Anyone who goes outside the fence line will be banished. Small infractions that would normally be overlooked are suddenly serious offenses. Katie is fighting the competing tensions of a deadly outside world and a heavily restricted inside one. Katie does not feel safe in either place. And by hiding the young man she found, Alex, Katie risks being thrown out of her community and into a world she knows is plagued by something deadly.
Eventually when the threat from outside infiltrates the Amish community, the Elders react with paranoia (understandable) and judgement (less so) and the community begins to turn on itself. It’s at this point that the horror reaches its apex, and I will warn readers that this book is legit scary and gory. Like way scarier than I expected a YA book to be. I had dreams about it.
Aside from all the creepy AF goodness, I really loved Katie as a character. She’s resourceful and intelligent, and as she watches her community struggle with the events taking place she questions her place in it.
As I mentioned before, Katie sneaks into town for supplies. In one telling scene she raids an abandoned pharmacy for antibiotics and first aid supplies, knowing they will be needed and believing the good of having them will outweigh the transgression of sneaking outside. She also leaves the money she has on the abandoned pharmacy counter, believing that just taking the supplies would be akin to stealing. She navigates a precarious place of adhering the values she was raised with and knowing she needs to be flexible if she and her family are to survive.
There is also a little bit of romantic drama between Katie’s changing feelings for Elijah and her developing ones for Alex, the guy she hid in her barn. If you’re looking for romance, though, this isn’t it and that subplot is pretty small compared to the action/ horror elements.
I really loved The Hallowed Ones. The slow unraveling of terror as an unknown threat encroaches on Katie’s community like a shadow was creepy as fuck, well done, and totally my cup of tea. Add to that the fear of a community cannibalizing itself (not literally–don’t worry) due to fear, and the tension was through the roof. I loved Katie as a main character, and didn’t mind the tiny romance subplot. The only reason I gave this book an A- is that I struggled to believe Mrs. Parsall wouldn’t have the damn internet on her phone.
If you like scary books, definitely check this one out. It’s not for the faint-hearted, thought, so be cautious.