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Reviewed by Asher Syed for Readers' Favorite
Hellbender by Josh Craven is a supernatural coming of age novel set in the American South following World War II. When a new, unknown pastor takes the helm as a guest preacher at Jade City Assembly of God, following the death of the church's predecessor, young Bobby Graywood immediately senses that something is severely amiss with Newton Hellbender. There is much afoot in Jade City, Texas, with the mayoral elections coming into full swing. On the surface, Bobby is a normal teenager who loves to play baseball, harbors a crush on a girl, and mows lawns for his neighbors. Underneath, however, he has seen and experienced more than any 15-year old could. His father was killed in the way his friends have died, and he's witnessed Hellbender—a man who hides his hands under a pair of gloves like Bobby does too—shape-shift into a reptilian creature and do unspeakable things.
Josh Craven has taken the wholesomeness of a pre-1950s Americana and added supernatural zest with Hellbender. The novel immediately introduces the pastor and our teen protagonist and quickly moves to unveil Jade City and its collection of inhabitants. The horror element is fantastic, with Craven skilled enough to peel away the layers with particularly well-done pacing and provide a narrative laden with dark humor. The most fascinating characters to me were the pedophile deacon and his lesbian wife, stuck in an unfortunate (for them) marriage where they unhappily play beards for one another. The combination of a demonic takeover on what otherwise feels like Main Street, USA, and an unlikely teenage boy with his own issues set to stop them makes for an exciting blend. An excellent new novel for lovers of horror and historical-style fiction.