Urban legends surround a long-abandoned mill, but despite knowing something bad happened there decades before, an unnamed boy breaks into the empty building. Inside, he senses a presence, and though scared, he doesn’t run. Instead, he’s compelled to go down into the basement. He doesn’t make it out. At least, not alive.
The story moves ahead roughly forty-five years, and we’re introduced to the Sturgess family. Matriarch Abigail, her son, Phillip, and his thirteen-year-old daughter Tracy, whose mother died in childbirth. There’s also Carolyn, Phillip’s second wife, whom he recently wed, and her daughter from a previous marriage, eleven-year-old Beth. The Sturgesses are an old and wealthy family, not to mention haughty and elitist snobs, save for Phillip, lording it over the town from their mansion atop a hill. They also happen to be the owners of the shuttered factory, closed for a century, with the nasty taint of child labor in its history.
There’s a schism in the town, class divisions running deep, with the wealthy and working-class equal only in their mistrust and hatred of the other. The divide makes things doubly difficult for Carolyn and Beth, who came from a blue-collar background. The Sturgesses and their ilk regard them with disdain, as they’re not ‘one of them,’ while their old friends have turned their backs on them, believing they’ve probably adopted uppity airs. Abigail drips derision at Carolyn, and pretty much ignores Beth, while Tracy vehemently declares her hatred of both every chance she gets, and makes a full-time hobby of harassing and tormenting her step-sister.
The family has just buried Abigail’s husband, Conrad, who, for the past forty-five years, was adamant that the mill should be avoided and left to rot, convinced something evil lurked there. Now that he’s dead, Phillip, with his mother’s blessing, plans on renovating the place into a shopping mall, and has hired Carolyn’s ex-husband, Alan Rogers, as the contractor. Carolyn secretly agrees that the mill should stay as it is. She also discovers she’s pregnant.
After being bullied by Tracy one afternoon, Beth heads to the mill to see her father. While looking for him, she hears someone calling her name, then hears another name spoken, Amy. Sensing a presence, Beth is convinced Amy was a girl who worked and died in the mill, her spirit remaining there. Tracy finds out about Beth’s belief in the ghost and, with the help of some of her snotty rich friends, taunt and embarrass Beth about it. Not long after, one of the boys involved in the ragging ends up dead in the mill. The police deem it an accident, Beth believes it was Amy, and Tracy is convinced it was her crazy step-sister. More people die, family secrets are revealed, and the hidden history of the mill is explained.
Hellfire is written competently enough, I suppose, but it’s nothing more than an average book. Characters are either good or bad, hitting all the necessary clichéd tropes. Everything, in fact, is black and white; there are no complexities or gray areas in the plot or characters. While reading, it feels like there’s a lot to the story, but it’s all surface, merely padding out the word count. There isn’t much mystery to the proceedings, because most of the reveals are telegraphed, usually from the first moment they’re mentioned. Anyone with a modicum of reading comprehension or critical thinking skills can figure out the twists.
The story is formulaic, with needless deaths thrown in just to up the body count and perhaps elicit a ‘shock.’ Phillip is a flop in the parenting department, and when he finally makes a stand, I scoffed, “too little, too late.” At times, Carolyn, and her pregnancy, seem like an afterthought. The last chapter provokes exasperation, complete with eye-rolling, the epilogue is laughable, and the last sentence is ridiculous.
Of the positives, I liked the housekeeper, Hannah, (woefully underused), and Carolyn’s ex-husband, Alan. The Sturgess mausoleum created an intriguing visual, and the backstory of the mill, and what happened there, was well told.
Given the age of the characters with the most page time, it’s clear this is another book aimed at a young demographic. For adults, this only works as a time waster; a beach, plane ride, or dreary weekend read. **-1/2 out of 5.