If you read much YA fiction, you’ve probably come across author Kiersten White before, either from her And I Darken trilogy, a gender-bent retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler, to her Camelot Rising series, which puts a more feminist spin on the story of Arthur and Guinevere. (And don’t sleep on the Bram Stoker Award-winning Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein!)
Like many popular young adult authors, White is crossing over into the adult market this year, but her contemporary debut is perhaps one of the furthest from the work we’ve seen from her before. (And that’s a compliment, by the way). Hide is a dark horror story that’s full of blood, gore, and a secret society of elites murdering the young, marginalized, and poor in order to secure the success of their own families.
But though her adult debut is very much a grisly tale of horror, it also features many of the same elements that make White’s other worlds so appealing, from its fast-paced, page-turning plot to its diverse cast of memorable characters and the complex, often unlikeable heroine at its center, who is wrestling with a dark past of her own.
The premise of the story is frighteningly simple: fourteen contestants are dropped off in an abandoned amusement park for a game of extreme hide-and-seek that promises fame and a fifty thousand dollar cash prize for the winner. The competitors range from internet influencers looking for viral content and tech bros hoping for a chance for some face time with the executives of the extreme sports company sponsoring the event to a young woman trying to rebuild her life in the wake of an abusive relationship and a rural gas station attendant who just wants to make some real-life friends.
Our primary POV character is Mackenzie “Mack” Black, recruited from the homeless shelter where she’s been staying since she lost her job. She thinks she might have a good chance to win, if only because she’s spent most of her life hiding in one way or another—-she survived her father’s murderous rampage that killed the rest of her family, and has spent the years since trying to avoid both the true crime media spotlight and the insistent voice inside her head that says she left her sister die in order to save herself. Basically, hiding in a park for a week is nothing.
But Mackenzie doesn’t count on forming real bonds with the other players, who slowly evolve from stereotypes to layered protagonists of all stripes over the course of the story. From veterans trying to come to terms with loneliness and PTSD to a self-obsessed Crossfit instructor, a wannabe Instagram model, and the child of a religious cult, these are all wounded and lost souls, each looking for a way to reintroduce meaning and hope to their lives.
But while they may expect cameras and overarching preplanned competition narratives, none of them are prepared when they start seeing strange things—like blood, torn clothing, and missing jewelry that once belonged to “eliminated” contestants—that hint that something much more sinister is at work in this game than extreme sports.
White skillfully balances tense group dynamics with the individual experiences of solo players, even as she interweaves snippets of the park’s dark history and the people behind its current state. Hide’s constantly shifting narrative, peppered with loads of tension and intense dread, is incredibly propulsive, and the novel’s slim page count means that no aspect of the story is wasted or feels superfluous.
The setting is deeply creepy, fully realized, and genuinely frightening at multiple points (I can’t be the only person who hates clowns). White’s descriptions of some of the decaying and overgrown attractions are hauntingly effective, as players hide in hollowed-out carousels, decrepit roller coasters, and giant swings with broken chains that limply sway like hanks of hair. There are warped carnival prizes collapsing games tents and undergrowth so dense there are places it’s impossible to see through. In short: This place is terrifying and would have been equally so without the addition of a slightly demonic supernatural element.
Your mileage may vary on whether or not you feel as though Hide’s more supernatural twists work—there’s certainly an argument to be made that this story is a whole lot scarier without them, and that man as a species is more than capable enough of stalking and murdering on its own—but the journal entries and flashbacks that detail the formation of the council that manages the darker aspect of this competition are darkly fascinating. So much so that I would have actually liked to see more of that side of things—how in the world did the Asterion families come up with this plan? And how did they convince everyone else to go along with something that is, to put it very kindly, clearly and objectively crazy?
Hide’s ending is also intriguingly open-ended. Not in the sense that it feels like White is angling for a sequel—far from it—but more of a choose your own adventure vibe where you as the reader can decide what’s most likely to have happened on the black page after the final period. Are there more deaths? Do the survivors truly escape? And what happens to the bulk of the dark and shadowy figures who’ve been running these contests? White doesn’t tell you explicitly, which is perhaps her most adult decision yet—often horror stories aren’t wrapped up in neat little bows with clear-cut and easy to understand endings. So why should this one?
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.