The town of Bentley holds two things dear: its football, and its secrets. But when star quarterback Dylan Whitley goes missing, an unremitting fear grips this remote corner of Texas.
Joel Whitley was shamed out of conservative Bentley ten years ago, and while he’s finally made a life for himself as a gay man in New York, his younger brother’s disappearance soon brings him back to a place he thought he’d escaped for good. Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark stayed in Bentley; Joel’s return brings back painful memories—not to mention questions—about her own missing brother. And in the high school hallways, Dylan’s friends begin to suspect that their classmates know far more than they’re telling the police. Together, these unlikely allies will stir up secrets their town has long tried to ignore, drawing the attention of dangerous men who will stop at nothing to see that their crimes stay buried.
OK, what if Friday Night Lights, but make it gay?
Yes. I want that.
But…BUT!!! What if Friday Night Lights, but make it gay AND horror?
Oh. Oh, hell, YASSS!!!
So that’s the “elevator pitch” for John Fram’s debut novel, The Bright Lands, and while it does an ok job of conveying the overall vibe, there’s of course a whole lot more going on in this book. This is a phenomenal story…one that hooks the reader instantly & never lets go. I fucking loved this book so much…oof.
One of the major elements this book shares with Friday Night Lights (the book, the movie, or the show, all of which are pretty spectacular) is the sanctity of high school football in Texas. This is something I’ve always been so fascinated by, because the town I grew up in oddly didn’t have a football program (it does now). So, I know that even if my town on Cape Cod did have a football program, it would never have been comparable to what I gather it’s like in Texas. Either way, going to football games on a Friday night is one of those quintessential high school experiences I never had, because my town was weird, I guess? Also, I was weird too, and probably wouldn’t have gone anyhow…but that’s a whole other blog post.
After years of torment & abuse, Joel Whitley has finally escaped the oppression & homophobia of his hometown, Bentley, Texas, and made a fresh start in New York City. Joel’s younger brother, Dylan, is the star quarterback of the Bentley Bisons. After Dylan sends Joel an increasingly alarming series of text messages, Joel hops a plane from NYC back to Texas. While Joel & Dylan haven’t necessarily been close (and in a way, Joel feels like he abandoned his brother), something about the tone of the messages convinces Joel to put aside the life he’s created for himself, and return to a town that did everything to see him humiliated & punished for his queerness.
Joel’s return to Bentley is anything but triumphant, as Fram begins weaving this complex, layered, multi-POV story. We learn quickly that Bentley is a town where everyone is connected, everyone is watching everything you do, and there are some truly evil secrets that people have & will kill to keep.
Sometimes I see discussions around what is & isn’t horror (not sure why this genre in particular seems to have these types of discussions/debates), which I mostly stay out of. Because I think that could ultimately be a really personal thing? Like, what Joel went through in his high school years is, to me, unquestionably horror.
All that said, when it comes to a That-is Some-Fucked-Up-Shit approach to horror, The Bright Lands is a book that takes its time getting there. But when it Goes There, it Fucking Goes There, and it is intense!
This book is written with such an angry, passionate, powerful, and sometimes hopeful voice. I think John Fram is going to very quickly find himself among authors like Joe Hill & Paul Tremblay, and I’m fucking thrilled to have gotten the chance to read this.
I suppose it’s true of almost any genre, but to me, horror novels & movies 100% live or die based on the strength of the characters. If I’m not fully sold on the characters in the early going, it just takes me out of the story. But The Bright Lands has a big cast of characters, and Fram does amazing work developing so many of them.
Joel is a great protagonist, someone who is constantly trying to figure out who he is & who he wants to be. He’s helped by Deputy Starsha Clark, a local cop & former schoolmate of Joel’s with a very personal stake in the darkness that’s descending on this town.
Bethany & Kimbra were two characters that stole big chunks of the book for me. They are members of the Bison cheerleading squad, and Must Not Be Fucked With. Bethany in particular provides some seriously badass moments in this.
This one goes to some really dark places, and includes some upsetting moments & themes…bigotry, racism, sexual assault, bullying…they all play a part in this painful & haunting story.
The Bright Lands is just fucking glorious & I truly hope it finds its way to the people who might need it most. This is that queer, disturbing, and moving horror novel you’ve been looking for. An absolute gem of a book.
Endless thanks to Hanover Square Press for sending me a copy!! The Bright Lands was released yesterday!