Mira/Mar. 27, 2012/$7.99 print, $6.39 digital
My name is Amelia Gray. They call me The Graveyard Queen. I’ve been commissioned to restore an old cemetery in Asher Falls, South Carolina, but I’m coming to think I have another purpose here.
Why is there a cemetery at the bottom of Bell Lake? Why am I drawn time and again to a hidden grave I’ve discovered in the woods? Something is eating away at the soul of this town—this withering kingdom—and it will only be restored if I can uncover the truth.
The Kingdom is the second book in Amanda Stevens’s The Graveyard Queen series, and we pick up with Amelia Grey, the titular Queen.
Amelia finds herself commissioned to restore the Thorngate graveyard in Asher Falls, South Carolina, a sparsely populated town only accessible by ferry or back roads. The history and events that have come to form Asher Falls are prime and center to the storyline, and for setting the overall feel of the book. The imagery Amanda Stevens creates right from the first scene sets the atmosphere and tone and it never lets up.
“Located in the lush Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina, Asher Falls had once been a thriving community, but in the mid-eighties, one of the town’s most prominent citizens, Pell Asher, had struck an unsavory bargain. He’d sold acreage to the state to be used as a reservoir, and when the dam opened, the area flooded, including the main highway leading to Asher Falls. Already bypassed by a new freeway system, the town sank into oblivion. The only way in or out was by ferry or back roads, and the population soon withered. Asher Falls became just another statistic in a long line of dying rural communities.”
To normal people, this description of the town and its history would be chilling in and of itself, but with Amelia’s natural-born ability to see ghosts, the mysterious and sketchy past of Asher Falls present another problem for her.
“As we approached the dock, the engines powered down and we came to a near standstill. The heavy shadows cast by towering trees at the shoreline deepened the water to black. At no point could I see the bottom, but for a moment, I could have sworn I saw something – someone – just below the surface. A pale face staring up at me…”
This is where I’m going “OHMYGOD did she just see a dead person in the water?! A dead person’s ghost in the water? Hold me!” … and we’re not even in to the second chapter yet. While Amelia is on the ferry to Asher Falls, she meets an attractive stranger who strikes up a conversation with her. He reveals more of just what is under the so-called Bell Lake they are slowly traveling over in the ferry. There are actually two Thorngate cemeteries, and one of them rests at the bottom of the lake.
““The original Thorngate was rarely used. It was all but forgotten. No one ever went out there. No one gave it a second thought… until the water came.”
I stared at him in horror. “Are you telling me the bodies aren’t moved before they expanded the lake?”
He shuddered. “Afterward, people started seeing things. Hearing things.”
I fingered the talisman at my throat. “Like what?”
He hesitated, his gaze still on the water. “If you look for this basin on any South Carolina map, you’ll find the Asher Reservoir. But around here, we call it Bell Lake.”
“In the old days, coffins were equipped with a warning system – a chain attached to a bell on the grave in case of premature burial. They say at night, when the mist rolls in, you can hear those bells.” He glanced over the railing. “The dead down there don’t want to be forgotten… ever again.”
And there you have it. The local folklore of Asher Falls and one hell of a way to kick off a hired cemetery restoration job! This ferry ride and interaction serve as the launching point of the spooky action-packed ride that is The Kingdom.
Amelia is shown to the place she will be staying while she’s on the job, and we it just happens to be a former church, which just happens to be on hallowed ground. Hallowed ground offers Amelia protection from her ability of seeing ghosts, but who could have known that? Is it just a coincidence? Just one of many many, mysteries to follow. From the home’s Gothic architecture, to the vast amount of quiet land and forest the place is settled on, immediately feel a sense of isolation there.
An interesting companion appears at her place in the form of a scrawny brown mutt. Amelia immediately notices that his face is horribly scarred and mutilated from trauma, and he is emaciated from starvation. She learns from the local realtor slash witch who is with her showing her the home, that this dog is a “bait dog” used in dog fighting and he had probably been dumped in the surrounding land to starve to death.
“A wave of rage washed over me. “How could anyone be that cruel?”
“This isn’t Charleston,” she warned. “You’re apt to see a lot of things around here you don’t understand.”
“What’s not to understand?” I asked in disgust. “Someone has abused this dog and we need to get him to a vet.”
“A vet? There isn’t one for miles. Best to leave him be. He’ll go back into the woods eventually.””
This attitude towards the horrifically abused dog and people’s reluctance to address this cruelty helps also to set the tone of the town and the people in it. Their unwillingness to help the dog and also to look in to the issue of dog fighting puposefully made me feel very uneasy. Amelia refuses to neglect the mutt, and she names him Angus. He becomes her companion while she is staying there, but he also becomes a useful sixth sense tool for her as she is immersed in the paranormal activity Asher Falls.
As Amelia settles in and starts meeting the townsfolk, she discovers that like many small town settings in a good horror thriller there are a lot of grudges and wicked betrayals. Drowned cemeteries and long-buried secrets are what comes with meeting the Asher family, particularly the wheelchair-bound old patriarch, and as Amelia explores the town, we feel as though we are right there with her through the use of beautifully crafted narration. The careful detail given to the graveyard description and the items in it is nothing short of spectacular and you can feel the level of respect for the dead and graveyards in the story telling.
“As I passed through the old arched lych-gate into the Asher section, the sparse landscaping gave way to mossy stepping stones, curling ivy and the remnants of what I thought might be a white garden inside a circle of magnificent stone angels. The heads tilted eastward, toward the rising sun, and the hanging branches of a cedar dappled the early-morning light that fell upon their faces. But their expressions were neither serene nor forlorn, as I’d come to expect from cemetery angels. Instead, I found them arrogant. Maybe even defiant. And these statues marked the resting places of the lesser Ashers. The remains of the immediate family were interred in a large mausoleum decorated with elaborate reliefs and stained-glass portals.”
Throughout the novel as Amelia is in the cemetery, these arrogant angels described appear to watch her, and the effect is spine tingling. Perhaps one of the most haunting peripheral characters in the book is a man Amelia encounters while she is in the cemetery. He is staring at her just inside the fence of the graveyard. He is tall and withered and dressed all in black, with grey hair and a heavy wool coat. As he is staring at her, Amelia freezes, unsure of what to do.
“I didn’t think him a ghost, but the rules had changed since I met Devlin. This man’s lack of an aura didn’t make him human any more than his strange appearance or statuelike stillness made him a specter.
As I hovered indecisively on the mausoleum steps, he did something that was neither human nor ghostlike. He dropped to the ground and slithered underneath the fence where he rose on hands and feet to scurry like a spider into the thicket.”
She sees the man again, as she is leaving the cemetery, and it’s just as freaky.
“He walked along the side of the road, pulling a rusted toy wagon behind him. His coat was so long it dragged the ground, and the tail billowed in the slight breeze. He turned to stare at me as I drove past, and though I didn’t return his scrutiny, I had the impression of pale eyes, jutting cheekbones and a hawklike nose. My window was down and I caught the scent of rotting flesh a split second before I saw the animal carcass in his wagon. I couldn’t tell what it was, but the body looked to be the size of a possum or raccoon.”
The Kingdom is much more than a hopeless romantic loner heroine who sees dead people and restores graveyards. With the use of fantastic visualization and gloriously creepy Southern Gothic atmosphere, Amanda Stevens has created a masterful tale of mystery and intrigue that unravels at a very fast pace. The authenticity of Amelia’s character remains strong through the duration of the story as the reader is taken on one skin crawling exciting journey. An excellent sophomore entry in this already exciting series.