The Stillhouse Lake series is another one of my great Kindle Unlimited finds.
The four-book (and continuing) mystery thriller series written by Rachel Caine is about Gwen Proctor, a reincarnated killer mom escaping from her past as a serial killer’s innocent wife. Danger stalks the footsteps of the Proctor family in the form of the ingenious ex-husband/father, merciless internet trolls, neighbourhood drug dealers, and even high-school bullies. I’ve never read a crime series like this one before and it really worked for me for the following reasons:
- Gwen Proctor is a badass without fanfare. She recovers from her horrific past and reinvents himself in four years, she goes to any lengths to protect her kids, and she takes down bad guys. At the same time, she has the same insecurities and vulnerabilities that every mother has. She is a wholesome character that I enjoy reading very much.
- This is the first book I’ve read that deals with the lives of those hunted by an angry internet mob. It was depressing to see that anonymous internet outrage was able to inspire the same level of terror as a psycho-killer. The feeling of being trapped by the past sins (that are not even yours) no matter how much you try to run away from it is suffocating. But it does make for a good edge-of-the-seat thriller.
- The author cares about having a very diverse set of characters. It shows in the way she calls out the skin colour of even the minor side characters who are not necessary to move the plot along. We also have Atlanta, Gwen’s teenage daughter and one of the main POV characters, who is gay. I liked how Caine wove these into the stories in a matter-of-fact way.
- The writing manages to make the readers uneasy without dwelling on the gory details of the murders. Caine has expertly used fear of the unknown, like the feeling on someone hidden in the shadows watching your every move, to keep readers on the edge.
Random side note: If I am really intent on escaping the horrors of my past, a remote house at a neighbourhood ominously named “Stillhouse lake” would be the last place I’d move to. How about a city apartment? Not that crimes don’t happen happen there but I’d at least stay away from waterbodies if that was my serial killing ex-husband’s modus operandi! I am not complaining too much because the locale really amps up the thrill.
Now let me jump into the review of the individual books (spoilers ahead!)
As soon as read the first chapter, I turned to my husband as asked him if he leads a secret life as a serial killer. That is the level of distrust it was able to instil in me. There are plenty of things to be horrified about in this book – a psycho murderer who seems to have plenty of influence for someone in jail, an eerie lake where dead bodies turn up, multiple gun-wielding characters who are not ready to trust each other, and the constant paranoia of Gwen Proctor.
After the first couple of chapters, where Gwen Proctor’s past and current lives are set up, there was barely a downtime. Restlessness and outright fear were a part of every page. The character of Melvin Royal, the imprisoned serial killing monster, actually appears in less than ten percent of the book. But he is so well-written that he was able to thoroughly creep me out. I wouldn’t call this a page-turner because I was honestly too afraid to turn the page sometimes.
This is first my first five-star mystery thriller. It achieves what it sets out to do and builds up an excellent hook for the next book in the series too. It also helped that I read with a thunderstorm raging outside my window.
The second book in the Stillhouse Lake series starts right where the first one left off. Melvin Royal is at large and Gwen Proctor decides that the only way to truly protect her kids is by killing him herself. Joining her in this crusade is Sam Cade, the brother of one of Melvin’s victims. This unlikely alliance is constantly put to test by Melvin and Absalom, the hateful secret internet collective that helped him escape prison. The Gwen vs Sam conflict with an undercurrent of ‘will they won’t they’ was the most interesting part of the book for me.
Unlike the first book where Gwen is the only POV character, in Killman Creek Sam and the kids also get their own POV chapters. I felt uneasy whenever it was ten-year-old Connor’s POV because his interactions with Melvin were the scariest parts of this book. Though the mystery was not as gripping as Stillhouse Lake, it was extremely disturbing.
While the first book deals with the effect of internet hate on someone’s psyche, the second one delves deep into the perverse commerce behind the hate. But I had too many questions about how exactly Absalom worked and who were behind it to be completely satisfied with the ending.
The whole Proctor household is reeling from the aftershock of the events that took place in Killman Creek. All they want to do is to live a normal life in the house they lovingly restored. But even as they are battling the monsters of the past, a new problem arrives in the form of a distressing phone call from a remote place called Wolfhunter. Gwen wants to mind her own business but how can see when she has become an unintended witness to a sinister crime?
Though Wolfhunter River has a strong premise, it was too much of a transition book between the old plots and new for it to be well executed. For once, not all the threats are targeted at Gwen Proctor and her kids. But they get into trouble anyway because inspite of the continuing internet hate, Gwen has become a beacon of hope for other hapless women implicated in their husband’s or children’s crimes.
Wolfhunter River is much less creepy than the earlier instalments, clearly due to the absence of Melvin Royal. This might have been mitigated if the book had only focused on the Wolfhunter mystery. But the actual plot starts only around the forty percent mark because, until that point, we are still dealing with the leftover threats from the previous book.
Unlike Killman Creek, the conflict between Sam and the Proctor family was not very interesting. It took away time that could have been dedicated to the cult plot that felt too tacked on in the end.
Gwen Proctor has become so used to escaping near-death situations and taking down bad guys that she has decided to make a career out of it. As a newly minted Private Detective, she travels to nearby towns tracking criminals. However, back home, at Stillhouse Lake, things are far from okay. The neighbours hate her infamous family and the media attention they bring. Even as they are being edged out of their house, new trouble arrives in the form of a case assigned to Gwen. Who knew that taking up other people’s problem as your own can put the people you love in danger?
I liked that the author was able to set up the seeds of the two main plot elements – the conflict with the Belldenes and the mysterious All Saints cult – in the previous book without calling too much attention to them. The mystery around the cult was well-built and eerie enough to keep the pace up. But the dangerousness was hyped up a little too much and it didn’t pay off. By the end of it all, it felt like they went down too easily.
I feel sorry for the Proctor children. Even before they can properly recover from old traumas, strange new ones are thrust on them. I was exasperated when Connor gets abducted in this one – he still had PTSD from the shootouts in the previous book! I found it a bit unbelievable that the Proctor family cannot even do something as normal as taking a hike or going to a party without discovering bodies. By the end of four books in the series, this is the one trope I grew tired of.
Though the rest of the books never came close to the heart in the mouth tension of the first one, I had a great time reading all of them. I am looking forward to the next one in which Gwen teams up with one of my favourite unexplored characters from the series, Kezia Claremont. I’d definitely recommend the Stillhouse Lake series to anyone who is looking for a quick, clever, and modern mystery thriller fix!