Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Vine That Ate the Starlet by Madeleine Swann. (Filthy Loot)
I love seeing period fiction that brings a supernatural twist into the story. When I saw Overlord last year, I was floored not only because the body horror is so effective, but it approaches the war genre with the utmost respect. We’re getting a solid war movie with tinges of horror sprinkled throughout; but instead of each genre taking away from one another, they enhance the whole movie and elevate it to something special. In the same way, Madeleine Swann takes us back to New York City in the 1920s. We get the glitz, glam, and social ladder climbing akin to The Great Gatsby—only in The Vine That Ate the Starlet, we’re treated to monstrous vines as well.
At its core, The Vine That Ate the Starlet is a mystery novel in the truest sense. We follow Dolly, a socialite reporter who generally follows the gossip around town, but is now trying to track down the answers to the questions revolving around a no-name starlet who happened to die at the hands—or leaves, I suppose—of the murderous plants. Dolly’s thrust into the dark underbelly of speakeasies, shadowy figures trailing her every move, and a shocking reveal at the end. Throughout her escapades, she comes into contact with multiple unsavory characters and tries to navigate a labyrinth of information that she’s unable to fully believe.
The concept here is so damn compelling. By creating a period thriller with supernatural horror elements living at the very edge of the story, we’re pulled deeper into the oddity of it all.
The concept here is so damn compelling. By creating a period thriller with supernatural horror elements living at the very edge of the story, we’re pulled deeper into the oddity of it all. The driving factor of the story is the dead girl—not about the mysterious occurrence of killer vines spreading throughout New York. But because the spreading plants create a tangible danger, they’re constantly on everyone’s mind—including us as the reader. This element feels apt during something as ubiquitous as COVID, and I couldn’t help but imagine the parallels between this fictional world and the very real one we’re all currently living in. Swann does a wonderful job dropping in little hints that feel authentic to the story while keeping the danger of the vines in the back of our mind, even if we wish we could forget about the danger.
This book is short, but there’s still quite a bit happening—meaning, it moves fast. The pacing doesn’t allow the reader to catch up or ponder the story as it briskly moves along. It’s constantly marching forward, which leads to moments of confusion. It’s relatively straightforward for a mystery, so there aren’t too many twists and turns to miss throughout the narrative, but having a simple story presents an opportunity to really dig into character quirks and motivations. It’s the exact moment when authors can chew the fat and bring a different texture to the story. Having continuous action and movement cuts down on the tension that could potentially build up, and, unfortunately, The Vine That Ate the Starlet falls victim to this.
This book is atypical enough that I was continually drawn into the story, even when I felt like I was getting left behind by the pace. The enigmatic plants create as much mystery as the A-plot of the novel. We’re continually questioning where they came from, why they’re here, and what purpose they serve. [Spoiler: None of these questions get answered because that’s beside the point of the book.] The purpose isn’t to look at the origins of that horror, but to see how we adapt and live within that horror. And that’s really why this book is scary.