bookish review

Review: The Lost Village, Camilla Sten

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten
eARC received from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for review
352 pages, mystery/thriller/horror

The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar in this brilliantly disturbing thriller from Camilla Sten, an electrifying new voice in suspense.

Documentary filmmaker Alice Lindstedt has been obsessed with the vanishing residents of the old mining town, dubbed “The Lost Village,” since she was a little girl. In 1959, her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in this mysterious tragedy, and ever since, the unanswered questions surrounding the only two people who were left—a woman stoned to death in the town center and an abandoned newborn—have plagued her. She’s gathered a small crew of friends in the remote village to make a film about what really happened.

But there will be no turning back.

Not long after they’ve set up camp, mysterious things begin to happen. Equipment is destroyed. People go missing. As doubt breeds fear and their very minds begin to crack, one thing becomes startlingly clear to Alice:

They are not alone.

They’re looking for the truth…

But what if it finds them first?

Content Warnings: Spoilers for one intentionally disturbing plotline, because there are some scenes that are… a lot (highlight to read): implied rape and impregnation of a developmentally delayed character – chromosomal abnormality or severe nonverbal autism are floated as possible diagnoses – who goes through unmedicated childbirth on the page.

Also: religious bigotry, scapegoating, ableism, graphic depictions of death. Discussion of mental illness: major depression, suicidal ideation, and an extended dissociative episode.

The Lost Village was published in 2019 in Swedish; this review is for the upcoming english translation, to be released March 23rd 2021.

Silvertjärn was once a bustling mining town that went the way of many such towns: once the mines closed, most of its population left to find work elsewhere, while those who remained stagnated. The killing blow came one summer day in 1959, when the remaining 900 inhabitants disappeared without a trace, leaving behind a dead woman, an abandoned newborn, and a wealth of questions and theories.

Alice Lindstedt’s obsession with Silvertjärn is personal. Her late grandmother lost most of her family in the disappearance, and despite spending the rest of her life chasing down information and possible leads, was left with more questions than answers. Silvertjärn represents an opportunity for Alice: to solve a mystery that has intrigued her – and haunted her grandmother – for decades, to learn more about her family history, and to break through a series of disappointing post-college temp and reception jobs and make her mark in the docu-film industry.

Alice recruits a small team to join her on a five-day exploratory trip to take primary footage, plan scenes and lighting, and hopefully get enough material to pitch the documentary to financial backers in advance of a full documentary shoot. She is accompanied by Max, an acquaintance who funds the trip; Tone, a photographer who is also intimately tied to Silvertjärn; Emmy, a rising filmmaker who was once Alice’s best friend; and Robert, a film technician who tags along as a favour to Emmy.

The novel has two parallel narratives – now and then. Alice narrates the unfolding mystery in the present day, while her great-grandmother Elsa gives context to the past and everything that led up to the disappearance. Both timelines share a growing sense of unease – but while the reader has a general idea that Elsa’s story won’t end well, Alice’s story is not yet decided.

The Lost Village is a solid horror novel. Silvertjärn in Alice’s time is little more than a grid of rotting and abandoned houses, miles away from civilization, which would be creepy enough without the mystery angle. The village is unwelcoming and dangerous before we’re shown any hint of foul play: rotted and dangerously unstable infrastructure, isolation with no cell signal, and interpersonal tensions have the characters on edge from the start.

Sten balances tension on a knife’s edge, taking scenes from unremarkable to horrifying with just a few words. Is something actually hunting Alice’s team or has isolation started to pick away at their already-frayed sanity? Is the threat supernatural, psychological, or human? Whenever I decided that the mystery leaned one way or the other, something would happen to shake up my assumptions, which kept me on edge through to the conclusion.

This is also a story with humanity at its heart, carried by women and their relationships. Emmy and Alice have a rocky history, with different views of their falling out, and conflicted feelings about working together again. Alice is still grieving her beloved grandmother and seeks to connect with her by learning about her past. Elsa balances duty to her daughters and dependant – Alice’s grandmother, Margareta, pregnant and bedbound with preeclampsia hundreds of miles from home; her rebellious teenage daughter, Aina, who has a worrying obsession with their new pastor; and Birgitta, the daughter of a late friend who is totally dependant on Elsa’s family – with growing anxiety about Silvertjärn’s fate. These bonds form the core of the story and give the reader an emotional stake in the outcome.

I have yet to watch Midsommar so I can’t comment on that comparison, but The Lost Village shares a similar creeping sense of horror with Ari Aster’s debut, Hereditary, like the novel equivalent of ordinary scenes unfolding while something unsettling lurks in the background or just out of frame, so that once you realize something is wrong it’s already too close. It shares some common themes with The Blair Witch Project – a cult, filmmakers who set out to create a documentary about a supernatural event, a presence that stalks the film crew – but this is not a found-footage mystery or a group of students running around in the woods with a shaky camera.

There were a few details that dropped this from a 5-star read despite my overall enjoyment. Alice made some of the cardinal horror mistakes, like keeping important information from her team that would have saved a lot of trouble, which was frustrating even though I understood why it made narrative sense. The conclusion was a little too neatly tied up but still had a solid emotional impact.

I also didn’t really connect with most of the men in the cast. Some for obvious reasons (that creep vibe you feel is totally justified); others just weren’t on the page enough for me to feel emotionally invested, so there were scenes that were probably meant to feel more impactful that fell flat.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed The Lost Village and would recommend it if you’re a fan of suspense and horror. This is a solid novel that only misses a few of its marks.

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