Ella Louise has lived in the woods surrounding Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, for nearly a decade. Publicly, she and her daughter Jessica are shunned by their upper-crust family and the Pilot’s Creek residents. Privately, desperate townspeople visit her apothecary for a cure to what ails them — until Ella Louise is blamed for the death of a prominent customer. Accused of witchcraft, both mother and daughter are burned at the stake in the middle of the night. Ella Louise’s burial site is never found, but the little girl has the most famous grave in the South: a steel-reinforced coffin surrounded by a fence of interconnected white crosses.
Their story will take the shape of an urban legend as it’s told around a campfire by a man forever marked by his boyhood encounters with Jessica. Decades later, a boy at that campfire will cast Amber Pendleton as Jessica in a ’70s horror movie inspired by the Witch Girl of Pilot’s Creek. Amber’s experiences on that set and its meta-remake in the ’90s will ripple through pop culture, ruining her life and career after she becomes the target of a witch hunt. Amber’s best chance to break the cycle of horror comes when a true-crime investigator tracks her down to interview her for his popular podcast. But will this final act of storytelling redeem her — or will it bring the story full circle, ready to be told once again? And again. And again…
- Title: The Remaking
- Author: Clay McLeod Chapman
- Cover Artists: Armando Veve, illustration; Aurora Parlagreco, design
- Publisher: Quirk Books
- ISBN: 1683691539
- Publication Date: October 8, 2019
The cover for The Remaking – a celluloid ouroboros – is a fitting one. At risk of consuming itself and collapsing under the weight of its own central conceit, Clay McLeod Chapman’s debut novel is a self-aware tale of a warped and stolen ghost story that is itself based on a warped and stolen ghost story. The novel follows four iterations of the tale of Jessica Ford, the “Little Witch Girl of Pilot’s Creek”: a campfire ghost story from 1951, a 1971 cult film based on the story, a postmodern 1995 remake of the original film, and a 2016 podcast aimed at debunking accounts of the paranormal. Each incarnation of Jessica’s story (including the novel itself, as Chapman doesn’t seem to let himself off the hook here) is told by a man who believes that he, not Jessica, owns her narrative.
Each fictional teller of Jessica’s tale is awful in his own unique way, but the characters share the narcissistic conviction that they alone are equipped to tell Jessica’s story the way it’s meant to be told. It’s a decidedly feminist take, attempting to shine a light on the damage done by the male gaze to both the people working in horror and to the genre itself. Chapman makes the metafictional choice to appropriate a young woman’s real-life story to make his point; I don’t know whether he’s seeking absolution through his self-awareness, but based on the caustic tone of the novel, I doubt he thinks he deserves it.
This book is not a celebration of horror; it is an indictment of it. That can be a good thing – if we don’t critically examine horror and ask ourselves who should be telling these stories and how (or whether) we should be consuming them, the genre will stagnate. For someone who so clearly loves horror, though, Chapman certainly seems to have a jaundiced view of the people involved in it. He takes aim at arrogant creators and obsessed fans with equal relish. The perfunctory horror movie references feel like mockery at times – they are so pedestrian that it seems like Chapman is making fun of horror fans who salivate over inside jokes. For example, one of the young characters is named Danielle Strode, and there is a laundry list of VHS horror titles at one point that goes so far beyond fan service that it, like so much of the rest of the book, begins to eat its own tail.
If the reader doesn’t already feel implicated by the (admittedly, sometimes deserved) jabs at horror fans as entitled obsessives who ruin scream queens’ lives, the final line unequivocally drives the point home, as the podcast signs off by thanking “listeners like you.” Listeners, viewers, and readers like us make these stories possible. Chapman took a real woman’s story and used it for his own purposes, but we read his book. We consumed her narrative, not from her point of view, but filtered and reshaped by a man who never knew her; we are not safe from judgment.
The Remaking is a prickly work that would be ill-served by a glowing review that glosses over the questions – and condemnations – it raises. I honestly don’t know whether I enjoyed this book (there are more than a few groan-inducing moments of stylistic clumsiness), but I wasn’t able to put it down. It made me think, and I would recommend it to horror fans who want to examine the genre and their place in it. More than anything, though, it made me want to read and watch more horror created by women.
The ambition may have outstripped the execution, but this was a genuinely thought-provoking read. I give this book 3.5 out of 5 coffins.