Sallow Bend Is a Mysterious and Bloody Novel

It’s always a refreshing feeling when an author can take a reader on a journey they weren’t expecting. The simple subversion of ideas nearly a quarter of the way through a novel can have lasting effects on the feeling throughout the rest of the novel; it creates that constant feeling of unease with the thought in the back of your mind that we could be thrown in any direction at any moment. While folk horror is starting to fall into the same hole that the zombie subgenre found itself in in the mid-aughts, there are still ideas to be found within folk horror and interesting ways to extrapolate on them. Thankfully Alan Baxter’s 2022 novel Sallow Bend doesn’t fall solely into the category of folk horror, but he splashes around in the bloody folk pool while a storm cloud of existential dread, and a healthy thunder’s clap of nihilism, brews in the background. Though every list of pros must be accompanied by at least one con, so let’s take a look at Baxter’s latest novel.

Sallow’s Bend is a story about a group of unlikely people coming together to save a town, while finding themselves along the way, mostly. Caleb Jackson is a school janitor, who also happens to live at the school (not sure if that is really a thing, but we’ll roll with it), and gets thrust headfirst into a situation about two missing girls, Clare and Suki. After casually being blamed, and then soon thereafter being let off the hook, Caleb decides to help with the search party. He is directed to the house of Tricia Brent (still not sure why the principal gave Caleb Tricia’s actual address), where she lives with her incredibly abusive and alcoholic husband, and the memory of her kid, Toby, has been missing for nearly a year.

A cabin sits in the woods, nestled between dead trees
“Cabin in the Woods” by kinglear55 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

With the two girls missing the town can only really place the blame on someone from outside the community, the idea of community and the “one of us” mentality comes up frequently, and that is the carnies who just rolled into town. When one of the carnies stumbles upon the three girls in the forest things somewhat go back to normal…for now. Caleb is just happy the two three girls were found, wait, three? Upon the return of the three girls, weird accidents start popping up left and right throwing the town into a gossiping panic. Caleb and Tricia must band together to get to the bottom of this mysterious curse that seems to be plaguing the small town of Sallow Bend before it is too late.

Sallow Bend could best be described as Twin Peaks meets The X Files. The novel has the idiosyncratic surface simplicity of Twin Peaks while carrying itself like an extended episode of The X Files. Baxter does an excellent job at creating the small tight-knit town of Sallow Bend with all of its intricacies and quirks, while he lets the true history of the town slowly unwind in a very fun and mysterious way. That being said, the townsfolk have an interesting way of letting their true history fall by the wayside. Stories are just that, stories, but one would think when there is such a negative emotion attached to an object (house) in the middle of the woods, an object that draws teenagers to it, would have been destroyed long before anyone else could stumble upon it. Seeing the, essentially, torch-wielding mob that confronts the carnies when two girls disappear, it would make a little bit of sense to have then just destroyed the house in the woods.

There is no question about Baxter’s ability to crochet his prose into a unique tapestry of horror, he proves that many times within this novel. He understands how much time we need to spend on characters for specific interactions and breaks away when it is necessary, but can also force you to spend time with characters longer than is needed if it is indeed needed. There is one thing that happens a handful of times within the novel, which is Baxter occasionally has a habit of losing himself within his words. There are quite a few ideas broached in this novel that become over-explained through long drawn out and overly expository dialogue sequences. Ambiguity can be a fun tool to play with, though this novel is fairly straight to the point and doesn’t leave a ton left for the imagination to roam. At points, it feels like there are some filler pages, and the novel could have probably been cut by 10 to 15 pages. The last note on his prose is that Sallow Bend never overstays its welcome.

A Feris Wheel lights up the night sky
“Carnival” by AcrylicArtist is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The roughly 330 pages of Sallow Bend go by quite quickly, as it stays entertaining, mysterious, and eerie from the beginning to the very last sentence. There’s a healthy dose of commentary throughout this novel, sometimes it’s slightly hidden and builds upon itself, while the majority of the commentary is fairly surface level. Some of the topics broached are sexual abuse, domestic abuse, violence against women, and [basically] don’t judge a book by its cover. Some of these topics are a bit heavy-handed and supremely literal, but that’s not necessarily bad. At no point does this novel feel dull, it actually feels fairly accessible. This type of novel is one of those that seems to have wide appeal, horror fans can find easily find enjoyment in Baxter’s words, and so can non-horror fans.

Sallow Bend is the first novel from Baxter I have read, and I would definitely read others by him. He is a great genre writer with a very interesting and somewhat unique story to tell. The characters are fairly fleshed out and will keep you intrigued and enthralled throughout. The multiple points of view throughout create only the most minor pacing problems, but it’s not enough to be a detractor for the majority of the story; at the very least it is what kept me turning the pages to get to the conclusion. Overall Sallow Bend could make for either an amazing beach read or a snow day in trapped with your thoughts and a hot cup of cocoa.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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