Stray Fears by Gregory Ashe

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Elien Martel is a survivor, but surviving, he’s beginning to discover, isn’t the same thing as living. In the house he shares with his much older boyfriend, Elien spends his days trying to stay as far away from living as possible. Living, he has learned, means that sooner or later you’ll get hurt.

When a member of Elien’s support group dies under strange circumstances, though, Elien finds himself in a web of bizarre coincidences. The responding officer turns out to be another member of Elien’s support group—a man named Mason, who has made no effort to hide his dislike of Elien. Then, just a few days later, Mason tries to kill Elien in front of dozens of witnesses.

As violence ripples through Elien’s world, he begins to suspect that the coincidences are not coincidences at all. Something is at work behind the cascade of tragedies, something vicious and intelligent. Something that has wanted Elien for a long time.

To defeat it, Elien will have to do what he fears most and face the darkness in his own past. Worse, he’ll have to take the risk of trying to live again.

Rating: A-

Stray Fears is another compelling story from the pen of Gregory Ashe that once again showcases his talent for creating strong, clever plots and engaging but flawed characters who exhibit considerable growth as individuals throughout the course of the story. As in most of his output, we’ve got an intriguing mystery and a central romance, but this time the mystery has a paranormal/horror vibe that focuses on the members of a support group for people with PTSD. It’s an imaginative, fast-moving and perfectly-paced story in which the author creates a real sense of menace that builds from chapter to chapter, making it a difficult book to put down.

Twenty-two-year-old Elien Martel’s life was ripped apart around a year earlier when his parents were shot dead by his older brother who then turned the gun upon himself. Plagued by grief and guilt, Elien is volatile and prone to lashing out, especially at his much older boyfriend, Richard (whom he lives with), a psychiatrist whose Quiet Understanding (Elien’s capitalisation), insistence on Giving Him Space and refusal to have a damn good row irritates Elien no end. It’s Richard who encourages Elien to attend a support group for people with PTSD which is run by one of his colleagues. Even though Elien comes across as a bit of a self-centred prick to start with, he’s really good with the other members of the group, showing them kindness and compassion and offering support when they need it. The group leader even suggests Elien could lead a support group himself – an idea he laughs off – but he agrees to her request that he keep an eye on fellow group member Ray who’s not been doing so well lately.

A day or so after this, Sheriff’s deputy Dag LeBlanc answers the call for a wellness check on Ray Field and arrives at Ray’s building with his partner Mason – who is a member of the same support group as Elien. Mason dislikes Elien intensely – and for no apparent reason – and when he and Dag arrive to find it was Ellen who made the call, Mason tries to persuade Dag the guy is pulling some kind of stunt – but Dag calmly dismisses that idea and accompanies Elien to Ray’s door. Inside, they discover Ray’s dead body, sprawled on his bed, eyes open and dancing with blue fire, and… well, I’m not going to elaborate, so I’ll just say that things take a really creepy turn, and Dag – deciding he can’t possibly have seen what he thinks he saw – escorts a freaked-out Elien outside… only for the guy to accuse him of cowardice when Dag refuses to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary happened.

But Dag isn’t going to be able to stay in denial for much longer.  Mason has been behaving increasingly erratically, and he tries to kill Elien – in broad daylight and full view of anyone passing by  – after the next meeting of the support group.  Dag, who had been waiting to collect Mason and take him home, intervenes quickly – and this time there’s no denying that something weird is going on.  Not long after this, a third member of the group is found dead, apparently a suicide… then a fourth.  Someone – or something – is picking off the members of the group one by one, and isn’t going to stop until they’re all dead.

The plot moves swiftly as Elien and Dag race to find out who – or what – is responsible for the murders and then work out a way to stop them before they become its latest victims.  Mr. Ashe makes good use of local (the story is set just outside New Orleans) mythology to add extra chills, and the pervasive sense of dread grows slowly but inexorably as Elien and Dag get closer to the truth and we head towards a final nail-biting confrontation.

The plot is solid and the locations are vividly described, but once again, the characterisation is where this author truly shines.  He excels at creating believable, loveable characters whose flaws make them that much more human, and the two leads here are no exception.  Elien and Dag are like chalk and cheese; Dag is quiet, kind and one of the sweetest characters I think the author has ever written, while deeply troubled Elien is all sharp edges, using his caustic tongue to push people away and make self-disparaging marks about his mental health.  Deep down however, he’s a genuinely caring person who just wants to feel whole again and to find some closure following the tragedy that ripped his life apart.

The romance between Elien and Dag develops over only a couple of weeks, but it’s a nicely developed slow-burn, and the strong connection between the pair on an emotional level makes their eventual, hard-won HFN/HEA all the more believable.

Despite the heavy subject matter and the grisly deaths, there’s plenty of humour in the book, which comes mainly from the banter between the leads and from Dag’s parents who are wonderfully supportive of him but are perhaps too invested in his love life!  Given that so many protagonists in Mr. Ashe’s books have difficult relationships with their parents, it was a welcome change to read about a healthy familial relationship – even if the LeBlancs do go a bit over the top at times!

My only real criticism of the book is with the fact that Elien stumbles across answers a little easily and conveniently, and I admit that caused me to dither over the grade a bit.  In the end though, it didn’t really spoil my enjoyment of what is an otherwise well-put together story, and as it’s a book I’ll re-read, onto the keeper shelf it goes.  I don’t read horror in general, so I can’t really offer any insights as to how far Stray Fears fits into that genre, but as a paranormal mystery/romance, it offers a gripping, spine-tingling read for the long dark winter nights.

Note: This book contains several violent (off-screen) suicides and a scene of attempted sexual assault.

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