Hekla is an Icelandic volcano. It’s mentioned once in a sentence two thirds of the way through the book, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the story except for that throwaway remark. The title’s greatest strength is in its distinctiveness.
Author James Brogden opens with some standard horror novel tropes, like introducing an ancient evil and showing how the threat was contained but not ended. “It is happening now”, used repeatedly through the book, brings us to our time and a typical day outing in Sutton Park on the edge of town. Teacher Nathan Brookes leads his small group into the mildly challenging outdoor event, confident the kids won’t get lost or in too much trouble if he leaves them for just a few moments. Of course that’s famous last words, and the four teens, athletic Ryan, snarky Scattie, brainiac Bran and scrawny Olivia disappear completely. Only one turns up the next day and everyone’s lives are changed forever.
Just when you think the book will continue to follow the standard tropes, things begin to shock a bit, and surprise a bit. On top of the ancient haunting is the story of a man caught in a web he doesn’t understand and really doesn’t even know is there. I enjoyed the pace of the author showing Nathan being dragged slowly and inexorably toward what could be either his saving the day or to his doom. We don’t find out which until very late in the book, and the result changes everything you’ve just spent the last few hours reading.
One of the surprises is the quick turn into the archaeology horror trope. The idea that an archaeologist would dig up and remove the remains of an ancient but still viable heroic protector isn’t new, but is well done here as a way of ramping up tension and leading directly into what is, essentially, an almost entirely different book. Throughout, the looming threat of evil is well paced and, when the evil really gets going it’s really, really evil and seems completely unstoppable.
The shocks delivered are not always gory or violent. My favorite is a simple kid’s drawing that comes out of nowhere and turns some characters’ worlds upside down. But all the characters experience several such world changing shocks and it was fun every time.
The essentially different novel inside a novel gave me a feeling of reading something that might be pitched as “Ramsey Campbell meets Stephen King”. Some people might be really put off by the offset of stories and milieus, and I will admit it can be very wrenching. I really enjoyed it, I believe because both worlds are so well drawn, and because you become very invested in all the characters. Once someone is introduced they are not forgotten. Even the deaths of minor characters will hit you hard, they are so well drawn.
One of the Stephen King aspects is an unfortunately weak end of the book. In all his decades of authorial mega stardom, King has never ended a book strongly, and Brogden’s end was a near miss on all fronts. The emotional payout he was looking for fell flat for me. It was a good idea, poorly executed.
If you don’t mind a story that goes all over the place and all over time, you will enjoy this more than someone who wants a more linear tale. The characters are well done and the settings are extremely varied. The evil is really evil with a motivation that turns out to be one of the shocks, but the creature is not the only threat to our characters. I enjoyed reading Hekla’s Children, and I recommend it. It’s not a classic of the genre, but I found it entertaining.