Review by: Daphne Strasert
Content Warnings: Sex, Violence, Incest, Domestic Abuse, Homophobia, Misogyny
Small town secrets, murders, and mysteries that span decades, and a bar in the woods that reeks of rotting flesh… welcome to The Cabin Sessions.
The Cabin Sessions is a dark psychological thriller by Isobel Blackthorn.
On a stormy Christmas Eve, the musicians of the town of Burton gather at The Cabin, a local bar, and take turns sharing their music. But tensions simmer beneath the surface. As the night continues and the storm roils overhead, dark secrets are revealed and old grudges assert themselves.
The Cabin Sessions doesn’t have a traditional plot. The titular Cabin Session is itself largely unimportant, more of a chance for the characters to muse about their own lives and the other townspeople. The real meat of the story is largely told through a series of flashbacks.
Blackthorn balances the major reveals of the story well, keeping dark secrets hidden until the appropriate moment. The Cabin Sessions is a slow burn story with an explosive ending. Blackthorn saved all the action until the very end.
The Cabin Sessions is foremost, a character study. Blackthorn dives into the minds of three Burton residents to tell the twisted story of murder and betrayal.
Adam is an outsider in the town of Burton. A recent transplant from the city, a gay man, and a non-believer, Adam earns the distrust of most residents. Unfamiliar with generations of scandal and gossip, he serves as the perfect vehicle to learn about the town’s shadowed history. Adam comes with his own dark past and a large part of the tension in Cabin Sessions is driven by his anxiety over the return of his abusive ex-boyfriend, Juan. The inevitable violence Juan threatens lingers over the story like the storm in Burton, filling the novel with creeping dread. Blackthorn masterfully writes inside the mind of a survivor of abuse and Adam’s fears are grounded in reality.
Philip is a Burton native, born in the town, raised in the repressive Kinsfolk religion/cult. He is a town pariah turned golden-boy. As a character, he is infuriating. A narcissistic, selfish, misogynistic, man-child. In his own mind, he can do no wrong. Nothing is ever his fault. His actions should have no consequences, and actually, should have consequences for other people. He resents all the other townsfolk, including his own family. He blames them for daring to think that he has done something, even when it was something he actually did. He is frighteningly incapable of introspection. That doesn’t make him unrealistic, however. Everyone has met someone like Philip Stone. It’s actually impressive that Blackthorn managed to get inside the mind of someone so vile without making herself sick. More impressive is the slow burn reveal of just how bad Philip really is.
Eva, Philip’s sister, is odd. Everyone in the town agrees though they don’t know exactly what’s wrong with her. Eva’s obsession with her brother borders on the deranged. Her diary accounts slowly reveal the secrets of the family’s past, including some truly shocking stories. But Eva’s remembrances contradict Philip’s, causing the reader to question which of them is wrong. Blackthorn’s use of the unreliable narrator really stands out and ratchets up the tension of the story as we wait for the reveal.
With a storm raging outside, the occupants are forced into close proximity. The heavy incense that fails to mask the stench of something rotting in the chimney is almost palpable from Blackthorn’s description. The close quarters of The Cabin add a claustrophobic element to the story and serve to heighten the tension among the characters.
The Cabin Sessions is a good fit for readers who like a literary element to their horror stories. If you are looking for excessive gore or jump scares, this isn’t the book for you. However, if you like a slow burn, atmospheric book with surprising twists, pick up a copy of The Cabin Sessions.