Review: Hydra

Matt Wesolowski – Hydra

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I bought this book new.

I’ve never listened to the kind of true crime podcast that Matt Wesolowski uses as his structural template for the Six Stories series (Hydra is the second, after Six Stories). And I’ve never been a fan of horror novels or films, as either they are obvious and thus boring, or give me nightmares and thus are to be avoided (it’s 30 years since I read a Stephen King novel for the latter reason). So I’m perhaps not the obvious audience for horror-turned-crime writer Weslowski’s work – but then I saw him on a panel at Newcastle Noir which drew me in and I finally picked up Six Stories. Wow. The eerie sense of place; the series of narrators bringing different versions of the truth; the hint of the supernatural; the delicate but constant ratcheting up of tension – the effect was stunning.

So, to Hydra. Twentysomething Arla Macleod is in a secure mental hospital after killing her sister, mother and stepfather with a hammer in 2014. Investigative journalist Scott King, creator of the Six Stories podcasts, is the only reporter Arla will speak to. She must have been out of her mind to kill her family, but is it psychosis talking when she describes seeing the black-eyed children or something genuinely supernatural? And are her recollections to be trusted when she has been permanently medicated since her trial? The ground beneath our feet is distinctly unstable; there is nothing to hold on to that we know is real, safe, absolute. Only one thing is certain: I cannot put this book down.

Wesolowski writes teenagers with both painful accuracy and huge empathy, particularly in terms of those seen as outsiders, shown beautifully in the second “episode”, an interview with “Tessa” who was at school with Arla, if not precisely a friend. The discussion on blaming music for teen behaviour will remind many of the Columbine High School shooting in the US, but music is a perennial scapegoat among those seeking something external to blame for an awful action, rather than examining the internal reasons of the perpetrator. Tessa’s take on teenage Arla should be noted – “Monsters can only be made, monsters are not born.” One interview finally reveals a likely trigger for Arla’s change in personality, and her disconnect from and violent anger towards her family. And in contrast, we see how far someone will go to help and protect their family.

The depiction of online trolling – including threats made to King – is chilling even though Wesolowski blurs the picture rather than going into specific detail. But he also reminds us that these trolls are people; that it’s not nightmare creatures and monsters responsible for this hatred and horror, which makes it all the more awful.

I can’t decide whether dark winter evenings are the best time to read something this chilling, or if you should dive into it on a hot, sunny day to keep the shivers at bay… Either way, I highly recommend Hydra.

Follow the author on Twitter at: @ConcreteKraken

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