I love myself an amazing horror story, the kind that sucks you in so deep that you can get tripped up in everyday life. I had one such experience back while working for Big Blue (The Gaming Company that Shall Not Be Named). At the time, our office on the Irvine Campus had a single long stairwell that took you up to the floor. There were no windows, just the single solitary door.
While reading House of Leaves by Mark D Danielewski, I found myself more than terrified of that stairwell. Working the overnights didn’t help and I found myself unable to get up and down those stairs on my own until I took a moving package to Texas.
If you’re an avid horror reader, you’ll recognize the name Danielewski and the title, House of Leaves. Why mention something like House of Leaves in a review for a serial on a new platform like Kindle Vella? The answer is this: SA Harian did to the forrest what Danielewski did to that stairwell. Considering I live in an RV fulltime and live parked in the forrest on BLM land for more than half of the year, that’s saying a lot.
Read the above as: The dog needed to go out at 3 AM and I was so freaked out that I turned on all of the outside lights, the lights on our truck, the dogs light up collar and my neck light. I also didn’t forget my phone or flashlight. I was prepared! Everything from that 3 AM trip out into the dark trees, with very little moonlight thanks to the smoke from regional fires, brought this trailer from the author’s instagram to mind.
Considering the serial content and the comparison to Danielewski it’s hard to give you a fair and honest review without offering spoilers that will either make or break this serial for you. What I will tell you is that there’s a story within a story and that both stories are intricately laid out for you as the characters and readers are fed pieces of an unexplainable puzzle piece by piece.
Have you ever found yourself staring at the TV or the screen in a theatre, wanting to scream: DON’T DO IT! WHY DID YOU?
That’s the feeling you get when you read BRIARDARK. The feeling of, these trees aren’t right. Where did this path come from and how did I end up getting where I was supposed to go when that wasn’t the way I got here before? Is someone watching me? Am I being followed? Is this a trap? Is this safe? Am I safe?
How do I explain to you that my 3 AM freak out has stuck with me every time I get into the Jeep only to find it augmented by the presence of fog and smoke?
There are elements of BRIARDARK that set it above other works in the genre and this is where I get to talk about them.
As a writer you can place characters in unrealistic situations and believe that the way you portray their reactions is realistic. Often, that realistic response isn’t realistic at all and can alienate the reader all together. Unless you’ve defined a strange world within a world where they aren’t exactly human, there are some expectations that need to be met. In this case, our author has provided us realism in a way that makes the characters not just relatable, but real.
Sienna’s experiences during their adventure leave her questioning herself and second guessing her actions in a return to trails she traveled before. Once a volunteer searching for those missing on a mountain, she finds herself caught up in her own adventure where time seems to be bending around her in aways she isn’t quite sure are actually happening.
Her fears and concerns are completely justified and her reactions to her journey have you nodding along with her decisions every step of the way (so far!). While your brain screams ‘don’t do it’ when it’s time to continue their journey, you know in your head that her reasoning is sound. There’s a radio that they can use to call for help, they need supplies that should be waiting for them and they have a job to do. It’s the best decision for their team in order to prevent another return to the mountain in the future.
I’d say more about the rest of her team, but I don’t want to give too much away for those who haven’t read through the current episodes. I do want to take a moment to introduce you to Holden, our other main character. Simply put, a real person complete with his own canine companion named Francis. Have I mentioned that I’m a sucker for dogs and the roles that they play in print and on screen.
He’s experiencing life post break up. He has a crappy day job that is tedious and easily hated, something far too many of us experience. He’s trying to get over his ex-girlfriend, but like anyone who has ever loved, the sting of that loss follows him. It’s during this relationship recovery that he stumbles onto a bit of history that links him to Sienna while completing tasks for his normally boring day job. His day job is to scrub old data or return it to it’s owner in the form of hard drives and other media.
Luckily for us as readers, coming across a simple hard drive will change his life, and ours as we see the world through his and Sienna’s eyes, forever.
This is where our story draws parallels to House of Leaves. There’s a story within a story here. With house of leaves, we find a script about a murder about movie in a house that is bigger on the inside than on the outside. We see the lives of the family that discover that house and find themselves both in and outside of time.
Much like experiences on the mountain and the scripts and movie that we learn about in House of Leaves, we have a character being spoon fed a mystery piece by piece. Even stranger is the way it’s being provided to him. As Holden investigates what he found on the drives, more of the files seem to be playable where they weren’t previously.
Who or what is causing this to happen? Why? We don’t know yet and it could be some time before we’ll even begin to get the kind of glimpses into the tangled web of a tale that will give us any sort of hint.
I want to say more about these decisions and experiences, but all I can tell you is that the curiosity, drive and self doubt our characters experience feel genuinely real. In this genre that’s a rare gift for readers who don’t have to stretch their minds far to suspend their disbelief.
This is the moment where the announcer for a gameshow or host of an infomercial says: But wait! There’s more!
Not only have I been so utterly creeped out that it’s a bit difficult to function when the sun goes down (remember that we’re full time RVers and live in different forests all year round…), I’ve also laughed so hard I shot my morning coffee out my nose. Twice.
If you’ve ever shot cola out your nose, you know it burns. Coffee is worse. The crazy part is that happened twice. You’d think I would learn not to drink coffee while reading. I don’t know if I can explain to you why this was so funny to me, it just was. Seeing the KindleQuote while writing this review has me laughing again.
Luckily no coffee at the moment.
At the time of writing this review, I have rabidly consumed the fourteen available episodes of BRIARDARK and may or may not be obsessively checking my Kindle App for more.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, here is what others have said about Harian’s Vella so far:
And now for something that I think is a lot of fun for me and readers. I reached out to Harian and asked them three questions that I hope will give you some insight into BRIARDARK and it’s creator.
Kitty: What drew you to write about horror?
Harian: Much of my favorite media is sci-fi or fantasy that relies really heavily on a creepy mystery…
Think Alien, Lost, Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, or Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant. Really good SFF horror has a ton of suspense and mystery (in my subjective opinion), and when I find a book, game, movie, or TV show that does it well, I become obsessed with it.
With Briardark, I’m writing the story that I want to read and loving every second.
Kitty: If you could tell readers anything about yourself what would it be?
Harian: I’m a total chicken in real life. Adventurous, but a chicken.
I definitely panic easy. Every time I think I’m even the slightest bit lost in the woods, I feel like I’m going to pass out. And yet I still love going on hikes and venturing into caves and then writing about horrific shit that happens in them–It’s sort of pathological, really.
Kitty: If you could tell readers anything about Briardark or another work in progress that you haven’t already, what would it be?
Harian: Briardark starts off narrow with transitions between the research group and Holden, but it’s actually an epic, I am SO excited for the world to expand and for readers to realize what’s actually going on. I have several seasons planned. Each will be episodically released on Kindle Vella first and the seasons will be released wide in all formats (ebook, audio, print) after they wrap up.
Finally, the most important question I can answer for other readers and for Harian.
Will I continue to read to read BRIARDARK? Yes. Every new episode will definitely be something I dig into.
Is BRIARDARK worth the token purchase? Yes! I actually had to buy more tokens when I hit Episode ten. What can I say other than the fact I’m an avid reader and since I’m normally the passenger when we drive, I have a lot of reading time on my hands.
How can you read BRIARDARK? If you’re on an Apple device and live in the US, KindleVella stories are already available for you in app. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can read BRIARDARK in any web browser.
Outside of the US, until the soft launch becomes more readily available, if you find an address that you can use for billing in the US you can use NordVPN to change your location and gain access to any KindleVella story available. If you don’t have a billing address in the US you can use the free 200 tokens offered by Amazon to read as many episodes as possible.
Next week’s Kindle and Coffee will feature the undead in Naomi Ault’s The Chew, where I’ll be accompanied by my Developmental Editor, David Cherbini who just so happens to be a rabid zombi aficionado known in the review world as Zombie Phreak. I’m so excited for it and more.
Until next time, share how you feel about Briardark by commenting below.