Midnight in the Chapel of Love
Matthew R Davis
Last year here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer I reviewed If Only Tonight We Could Sleep, the debut short story collection from Australian author Matthew R Davis and published by Things in the Well. I was greatly impressed by the collection, finding it to be a carefully executed, engaging and often thoughtful journey through a variety of different Horror subgenres, and strongly recommended it to anyone interested in sophisticated and polished horror writing. Davis was subsequently on my radar as a writer of interest, and I was therefore greatly pleased to be contacted by the author and offered a review copy of his upcoming novel, Midnight in the Chapel of Love. The on-going effects of the global pandemic kept me from reviewing it immediately, to my great regret, but I was finally able to get around to it a few weeks ago. I had been curious to see what Davis could do with a full-length novel when compared to a series of short stories, and the back-cover blurb sounded distinctly intriguing – it promised a potent blend of small-town culture and resentment, a long-lost love, and generation clashes. Jonny Trotter has been running from his old life for than a decade, pursued by mysterious black envelopes pushed under whatever door he’s hiding behind that hold cryptic messages. But when his father dies, he sees he has no choice but to return to his hometown. There for the funeral with his partner Sloane, Jonny must confront estranged friends and a strange veiled woman known as the Woman in White, as well as the dark, murky half-truths behind the disappearance of both his mother, and his first ever love, Jessica Grzelak, in connection with a strange cave known as the titular Chapel of Love. It all sounded hugely promising, and I couldn’t wait to dive in and take a look.
Davis sets the tone of the novel deftly and confidently with a prologue set in the 1960s, in which hoodlum Billy Ross Jr and his new beau Poppy flee the town of Waterwich and drive through the desolate South Australian landscape. They’ve left a trail of corpses in their wake in order to ensure that their forbidden love could be released, a love confirmed by a journey into the mysterious Chapel of Love, only for the two murderous lovers to be cut down in a hail of gunfire by police after just a few days together. It’s a fascinating way to set up the novel and really brought me into the story as a whole, setting up a quietly tense and unsettling atmosphere that Davis then exploits to great effect throughout the rest of the novel. Jumping forward several decades, we’re then introduced to protagonist Jonny Trotter as he travels back to Waterwich for the funeral; contrition, alcoholism and bitterness blend together to create an almost-physical weight on Jonny as he’s forced to return to a rural backwater he thought he’d abandoned forever. The black envelopes don’t help, one being delivered mere hours before he leaves for the funeral, and a tense relationship with his partner Sloane only adds further weight to the burden Jonny carries. He’s a brilliant protagonist, Davis artfully creating a man who is both sympathetic and yet also frustrating, almost in equal measure; communication is difficult for Jonny, and it often seems like his difficulties would be greatly eased if he could discuss the many things that occurred to him in his youth to form him and his relationships. Yet there’s a quiet stubbornness to him that seems to stop anything like that happening, often until it’s too late to change anything.
As Jonny returns to the town for the funeral and wake, dealing with old friends and resentful relatives as he does so, the chapters alternate with the backstory of Jonny’s teenage years and his slowly-blossoming relationship with Jessica Grzelak. Smitten with her confidence, rebellious attitude and goth-like attitude, Jonny finds himself increasingly drawn to her as he deals with a dead mother and a father in mourning and too busy running the family pub to properly care for him. An innocent love soon becomes increasingly complex and difficult to navigate, as Jessica’s interests begin to move from piercings and loud music to far darker and more controversial topics, eventually to a point where friendships with his childhood mates become strained, and Jessica becomes obsessed with the nature of the mysterious Chapel of Love – allegedly a way for couples to ‘prove’ the strength of their love together. In the present, Jonny has to deal with the results of running out of town after a mysterious incident, and the bridges that were burnt as a result, and also why he’s been keeping his past hidden from Sloane. That past is inextricably linked to both Jessica and the eerie Woman in White, as well as the mystery of his mother’s disappearance in his youth, with the Chapel of Love looming over everything like a stone sentinel. The Chapel is an absolutely fascinating concept, a multi-faceted one that Davis deftly and superbly extrapolates as the novel progresses – while eventually a physical location is uncovered, it’s as much metaphorical as it is real, an eerie and disturbing notion that anchors the entire novel, and really makes it an unforgettable read.
The core of the novel is the complex, intertwined relationships between Jonny and the men and women in his life – both childhood friends and romantic partners – and Davis expertly develops these relationships as the novel progresses; they always feel natural and unforced, complexities and misunderstandings appearing as they so often do in real life, adding layer after layer to the story even as the Chapel of Love approaches in the background. Midnight in the Chapel of Love is one of the few horror novels I’ve read in a long time where the characters are just as engaging as the plot, and it’s one of the greatest strengths of the story; Davis seems to have a knack for characterisation, which then merges with the strong plotting and superb atmosphere to create something that stays with you long after finishing it. It’s the same with the portrayal of Waterwich and its inhabitants, and the way in which Jonny has to return to the town: “Everything was different, and yet everything was the same” deftly encapsulates the atmosphere of returning to your home town after hoping you’d left it forever, something I keenly recognise and which Davis develops as an undercurrent throughout the novel. There’s some really poetic language taking on grief and tragedy, and the strange feelings that arise from returning home when you’ve been away and changed and home doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. Once again there’s a sense of the novel having layer after layer – Davis creating story that unwraps itself slowly and presents you with new paths and fresh horrors, even to the shocking and mind-bending ending. I admire Davis’ restraint – he could have gone all out with a ghost or supernatural narrative, but instead reins in that element of the narrative to create a story that’s as much about the horrors of human actions as it is the occult and the unreal nature of the Chapel of Love.
Midnight in the Chapel of Love is an incredible accomplishment by Matthew R Davis, a small-town horror story executed masterfully with a multi-layered narrative that becomes more complex and engaging the further you read into the novel. It’s a profound and thought-provoking rumination on the nature of love and belonging as much as it is a supernatural horror story, an artful blend with a huge amount of depth and character that Davis develops perfectly. Reading Midnight in the Chapel of Love has been one of the highlights of 2021 for me, and I think another author will have to perform incredibly strongly to outperform it. Matthew R Davis is a name that should be on the lips of anyone with a serious interest in horror, and I can only look forward with a huge amount of interest to see what he comes up with next.