The Weight of Chains (Sinister Grin Press) is an eye-opening debut novel from Lesley Conner. You might remember Lesley from her “What Say You” post a couple weeks back. She’s a sweet-faced Girl Scout leader who writes horror that makes even *me* cringe.
Set in 15th century France, this historical-horror novel contains two fast-paced plot threads that combine for a satisfying and horrific conclusion. We’re introduced to Jeanetta, a hardworking eleven-year-old girl who has moved to the village of Machecoul with her family. In true peasant fashion, they’re poor and the family is always on the brink of starvation. To ease the burden on her family, Jeanetta is promised to a kindly, widowed smallpox survivor.
Gilles de Rais, the lord of Machecoul, is on a constant search for young boys… preferably fair-haired and no more than eight years old. The guy is a nasty piece of work whose heinous crimes are documented facts. Unfortunately, de Rais is surrounded by a group of enablers, in particular, his guard, the sadistic Poitou.
As the novel progresses, Gilles de Rais’s appetites become more demanding. He enlists the help of a wizard named Prelati to summon the demon Barron with the hopes of trading blood for gold. Poitou’s search for victims becomes more aggressive as more and more boys are sent off to be a court page in Paris by their master. It is when Poitou brings Jeanetta and her eight-year-old brother to Gilles de Rais’s castle that our two plots collide and we’re given a page-turning and somewhat unexpected conclusion.
The author has a knack for writing despicable characters: Gilles de Rais, Poitou, and Prelati all felt three-dimensional and are memorable. Our young heroine, Jeanetta, comes across as a realistic eleven-year-old in an old soul’s body.
Be warned, there are buckets of gore and plenty of chilling scenes that will set off a whole set of trigger warnings. If you check out the Wikipedia page I linked earlier, you’ll understand why.
Parents with young children might wish to stay away from this one. I have a fair-haired eight-year-old son (Gilles de Rais’s favorite type) and the book made me uncomfortable at times for obvious reasons.
If you’re looking for a great Halloween read, then The Weight of Chains is worthy of your attention.
One last thought: the final chapter is one of the best I’ve read in a horror novel.
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