A standout in a crowded genre.
Girl Desecrated by Cheryl Cowtan is a richly drawn and entertaining story with compelling characters. The novel is first and foremost a classic horror/vampire story—thrilling, scary, sexy and bloody, very bloody—but as with the best of this genre, the book employs the vampiric metaphor as a stand-in to explore larger themes related to human existence. In this case, the story examines the existential struggle to define a sense of identity amidst the avalanche of family history, the torrents of the present, and the conditionality of the future.
The story takes place primarily in the 1980s. Rachel, a complicated, creative spirit with an abusive past is our heroine. Rachel just seems to be trying to get along as best she can when we meet her, like all of us. Her character is thus rendered relatable and Rachel proves to be an effective protagonist to anchor the fantastical story.
Soon, we figure out that Rachel struggles with a painful mental illness—a type of split personality disorder—likely a result of childhood abuse for which she is being treated and medicated. She has little control over when or where her alternate personality—the dark, depraved, blood-loving Scarlett—appears but when she does, violence and criminal acts reign in her wake.
When Rachel meets a mesmerizing man, Angus McNab, the attraction is electric and consuming—“The warmth of his body next to mine sparked my senses into a living current.” But the lusty encounters also seem to call out specifically to Rachel’s other personality, and suggest that Rachel’s mental state may not be due to the childhood causes presumed. An ancient legacy lurks beneath.
Cowtan is a gifted writer. She deftly employs flashbacks to seed hints about the primordial origins of the personality who resides within Rachel. Cowtan uses different points of views and voices (I especially liked those of the Fergus She), employs various accents, and her descriptions are fiery but not overdone. For example, I was taken by the visceral way she described Rachel’s personality being taken over by Scarlett: “She climbed up my larynx and grabbed my conscious thought in a vice of slivered metal and screeching death.”
Girl Desecrated is a stand out in a crowded genre. The use of the vampire metaphor to explore issues associated with mental illness, and the search for identity in the context of an abusive past, gives the book a powerful undercurrent.