I read Bottled earlier this year (or last) and really enjoyed it. I’ve also checked out several short stories by Stephanie Ellis in various anthologies, the most recent being Midnight in the Pentagram. When the cover was revealed for The Five Turns of the Wheel, I think everyone was stunned - it’s gorgeous and frightening and darkly vibrant. And as much as we all like to say don’t judge a book by its cover, the cover is the first thing your eye sees; if you win that attraction, the book is more likely to be read. Not only that, anticipation is built for those of us online who keep seeing images of the book. It makes you want it so bad. That was the case for this novel and, luckily for us all, the story delivers on all marks.
I’ve gone back and forth on how to propose this story, and I think simply providing its synopsis would do best:
Stalking the landscape of rural England are the sons of Hweol, Lord of Umbra. Creatures with a taste for blood and death, they lead the Dance—five nights of ritual, the Five Turns of the Wheel. Proclaiming these events as a celebration of Mother Nature, the grotesque mummers troupe of Tommy, Betty and Fiddler, visit five villages on successive nights to lead the rites as they have done for centuries.In this blend of folk horror and dark fantasy, two women decide it is time to put a stop to the horrors committed in the name of the Mother. Liza and Megan, mother and daughter, fight back to protect the unborn and to weaken the power of Hweol. But will it be enough to destroy it forever?
This novel is a blend of folk horror and dark fantasy. You don’t really have monsters running about, bringing havoc, but they are there in the story and more prominent as it moves along. The fear you feel in this story is upfront with the town and characters that have been under the hypnotic rule of Hweol for too long. He’s taken their husbands and wives, sons and daughters, all in horrific and gruesome ways over the years. Taking them back to the Mother. The loss you feel throughout this book is real and gripping. Aided by the disgusting and bloody deaths of each turn of the wheel, Stephanie Ellis creates a brazen world that somehow feels both fantastical and folkish, gothic and timeless.
The writing is fantastic, as is the story. The only complaint I had along the way was the name of the troupe - I just found them silly and distracting. Otherwise, I was hooked on this book from start to finish. If Ellis decides to write a sequel - seeing how she left it open for one - I would be scratching at her door for it to release. In little time, she has proven to be a writer to watch and recommend. Get this book.
Highlights: A scary and unique concept … violent, ritualistic murders … dramatic and horrifying … a strong cast of characters
Shadows: The troupe that parades into town to begin the Dance have silly human names like Tommy and Betty
For fans of: Folk horror … dark fantasy … demonic rituals and bonds … isolated towns
Takeaway: The Five Turns of the Wheel is not only a darkly unique experience, it is also a story of a ravaged town and its people trying to find purchase following constant and gruesome loss of life. This horrifying novel is a thing of nightmares.
Would I read this author again? Yes
Folk-lore horror/ Magic realm horror is not new to me, there are elements in most of Neil Gaiman’s work that hold a touch of Faerie in them. In a similar style, Stephanie Ellis has presented her world, similar in that the creatures and magical elements in the story are real, unavoidable, and bloodthirsty.
Let me first start off by saying that Folk horror is not something I gravitate to. I like reading it – when done well, as in here – sporadically. It’s such a break from the norm and a bridge between fantasy and horror, but the thing is, I started off my reading journey almost purely in fantasy and science fiction. I was a reader as a kid, that was my thing. The Riftwar Saga, Thomas covenant, Shanara, all books based in and around fantasy. Then came comics, and horror comics, Hellblazer, Sandman, Watchmen, Cerebus, the dark Knight returns, the great Vertigo run, 2000ad, and Slaine the barbarian in all his berserker glory, Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd – you get the picture.
So, let’s start comparisons. Ellis has a way more poetic narrative. Way more. Like ratchet it past ten to 15, say. It’s a voice that is graceful, evocative, clear as crystal water. The presentation of the magical beings is, as noted, Gaimanesque in its presentation; there is nothing that the humans can do against the magical beings that are butchering their village. Acceptance, and hope that the victims will not be them this time around, is the method the villagers use to cling to their lives. And it’s a tenuous hope, we see people being burnt to death, cut by a million lashes, etc – The ritual of the yearly killings is immutable. It reminded me of a scene in Sandman where Loki is pointing a gun at a woman in a car, who cannot move – she cannot move because Loki has made her focus on a point, and now, she is trapped, her limbs quite unable react, and – oh look – the gun was always a cigarette. And the car she is in is set on fire, as the trapped woman mechanically uses her lighter and lights the cigarette held by Loki, but then drops the lighter, which is suddenly unbearably heavy, as she stares belligerently at a focal point not of her choosing as she begins to burn.
That’s the magic at play here. Impossible to fight, because it is as real as breathing.
I do have to say that this took a toll on me. This wasn’t easy reading (for me at least), I had to read this spread over an extended time, because the world here is so rich, and somewhat depressing in its inevitability, that I found myself fighting it – once you are in the world, it is subversive, it is a tragedy that demands to be played out. But upon surfacing for air, you consider the cost to yourself before you dive back in, before once again being spellbound.
Ellis has managed to import a whole world of Magical creatures into her folklore, a god, fairylike creatures, etc. and the rural setting of a sleepy English village, surrounded by four other villages in a star formation, fits Stephanie’s prose amazingly. The elegance of her prose hangs in counterpoint to the rather farm-orientated villagers. The thing is, it’s believable. It just reeks of observational commentary. The world-building here is exemplary, done so well that even though you are repulsed by the brutality of the world she has created, you want to believe that something like that could exist. You thrill that the story is about a mother and a daughter that want to desperately break the cycle of abuse and bloodshed, that have the strength to stand up to the monsters that have enslaved a whole area of Britain and its inhabitants.
And then she tells the story from the monster’s point of view.
I mean, that’s brilliance. That’s class.
I’m not going to do a synopsis of the book, I think it’s one you need to encounter in its full glory, as Stephanie intended, but I can say that the ending leaves threads open, and Stephanie has obligingly written a collection of shorts with return appearances of Tommy and Betty and the rest, called “As the wheel turns”, which I will, of course, be reading.
I’m giving this 4 out of 5 ⭐ ‘s- it is beautiful, horrific folk-lore horror, but a demanding book nevertheless.
Wow, what a tale. Steeped in the tenets of folk horror, but with a lore that is completely original to this story. Brutal violence, relentless dread, and unsettling imagery. This book is everything I wanted it to be and more!
The world that we're dropped into is a dark and disturbing one. An area of land encompassing several rural villages is held under the power of ancient gods who demand annual sacrifice from the townspeople in order to maintain balance between the worlds of human and other. Everyone has a part to play, and each year the wheel turns with gruesome results. Except this time there is a family who has given too much, and a mother and her daughter who refuse to submit any longer. But the powers that bind them are strong and seeped in dark magic. When mankind challenges the ancients, can anyone survive?
I can't express enough how much I love the lore/world that author Stephanie Ellis has created. The gut-wrenching rituals, the hierarchy of the supernatural order, the variety of terrifying beings, the connections/reliance on humans, and so on. It manages to somehow feel comfortably familiar while also staying full of surprises around every turn. The rituals themselves are BRUTAL, and one is constantly fearing for the safety of the main characters (and, no spoilers, but the author gives you good reason to be afraid). Thematic concepts of grief, suffering, oppression, silence, and modernity vs traditionalism are also explored and powerfully intertwined with the narrative.
I absolutely devoured this book. The writing style is easy to fall into and the story is completely engrossing. I love folk horror, and Stephanie Ellis has given us a spectacular addition to the genre!
The Five Turns of the Wheel by Stephanie Ellis is a great example of true folk horror. One of the strengths of the novel for me was its masterful imagery, for example...“His boots crunched satisfyingly among fallen crimson and gold leaves. Nature had rolled out her carpet for him.” This is the description of one of the main characters named Tommy as he approaches the village of Cropsoe. It establishes the sense of importance surrounding the character. In fact, overall I would say the characterization within the whole novel is strong, particularly regarding Tommy, Fiddler and Betty. I loved the contrast these characters provided.
The depiction of the Five Turns Inn and surrounding area is atmospheric and places the reader right in the middle of the action.
Throughout, the supernatural elements are so well done they are believable, and the ritualistic elements are well thought out and explained in depth.
The level of back story and explanation provided as to what is involved during the Five Turns of the Wheel means the novel cannot be read at speed. Instead you need to digest the detail as you progress.
All in all, thoroughly enjoyable!
Technically 4.5 stars as there were a few editing oversights which bugged me, but...ignoring that, wow, what a story!
Every year in The Weald, as the autumn slides into winter, three figures appear to begin the annual tradition of the Five Turns. This year, two women will risk everything to put a stop to the centuries of slaughter. This story is a glorious take on folk horror, customs and rituals, sacrifice and trial, blood and pain. Horrific characters and wonderfully crafted dark scenes will haunt your dreams. And perhaps most terrifying is that disquieting feeling which settles deep inside when you read folk horror: what would YOU do if your whole world was one monstrous murderous ritual? Would you fight against it? Would you even realize it was wrong?