American Folk Horror: Summer Solstice

“An isolated rural town where nothing ever changed until…Katie Ellenwood returned home to visit her suddenly invalided mother. Then the whole town seemed to vibrate with strange secrets. Antiquated farm machinery was restored. The cross on the church was replaced by a figure of a woman bearing sheaves of wheat, and the fiery parish priest spoke cryptic phrases. With every minute that ticked closer to the forthcoming Summer Solstice, the townspeople looked at her with growing satisfaction. And, though she didn’t know why, a subtle terror was slowly, steadily, irresistibly growing inside her.”

back-cover BLURB from summer solstice by Michael T. Hinkemeyer,

A few years ago I came across Michael T. Hinkemeyer’s 1976 novel Summer Solstice while I was searching for another book. I was unfamiliar with the author at the time but the book’s evocative title and suggestive cover art caught my attention so I purchased a copy in the hopes that it would live up to it’s back cover blurb.

I’m happy to report that the book didn’t disappoint!

Summer Solstice tells the perilous and peculiar tale of Katie Ellenwood. At the request of her father, Katie and her husband return to her childhood home on the outskirts of the great Northwoods forest in Minnesota so they can care for her invalid mother who has suffered a stroke. But soon after the couple arrives at their destination it becomes apparent that things are not quite right.

The family farm is in a state of disrepair and decay. Katie’s father has also removed modern convinces such as the telephone while insisting on using kerosene lamps instead of electric lights. The local villagers, including the small-town doctor and parish priest, are also acting suspicious and strange. After Katie’s husband leaves her there alone so he can return to work in Minneapolis, which is hours away, it sets in motion a series of odd occurrences that lead Katie to believe her mother’s sudden ill-health may have unnatural origins.

As the title suggests, Summer Solstice uses the pagan history and folklore myths that surround the holiday to craft a sinister story involving a small village that time has forgotten. As the sun moves southward and the days grow longer, the local church is transformed into an altar honoring strange gods that demand some kind of sacrifice. Will Katie survive her ordeal or succumb to the unknown darkness that threatens to engulf her ancestral home?

“In Britain and parts of Europe during the pre-Christian era, Sun Worshippers celebrated the Solstice by setting bonfires on the highest hills. They wished to attract the Sun and hold Him, that they might enjoy His light forever.”

– Sir Nigel Trevor-Smythe, The Runes of Wonder: A Compendium of Myth & Speculation, a fictional book quoted in Summer Solstice

Readers familiar with the various tropes that have come to be associated with folk horror will immediately recognize the signs that something uncanny is happening in the small village of St. Alazara. But Summer Solstice has some surprising twists and author Michael Thomas Hinkemeyer does a nice job of building suspense as the story progresses towards its curious climax. This is not a horror novel for the squeamish or easily offended. Attempted rape, murder, and incest are just a few of the unsavory topics that Hinkemeyer explores in Summer Solstice while the book’s language is firmly anchored in its 1976 setting.

Michael T. Hinkemeyer

If I have any problems with the book they weigh on the slender shoulders of the female protagonist. Katie is too meek and timid for my liking. She suffers all manner of indignities and is much too forgiving of her husband, her family and her odd neighbors. The sexual encounters described in the book also have a rather crude and very male-centric perspective that is surprising for an author who wrote a series of popular romance novels under the pen name Vanessa Royall. Despite my complaints, Summer Solstice is a fun, frightening, and brisk read that should appeal to folk horror fans.

I don’t know much about author Michael Thomas Hinkemeyer aka Vanessa Royall outside of what was written in his obituary (linked below), but Summer Solstice is just one of his horror and suspense novels. Other books he has written include The Harbinger, a ghost story set on Long Island, and Lilac Nights, which involves a couple dealing with a threatening stalker.

I find it interesting that Hinkemeyer was born in Minnesota. The author undoubtedly took inspiration for his folk horror tale from his surroundings and some of the best writing in the book can be found in the evocative passages that describe the fictional pagan village of St. Alazara.

Hinkemeyer was clearly influenced by Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home released in 1973. Publishers made the comparison a point of pride by including it in the book’s various cover designs. Unfortunately Hinkemeyer does not have Tryon’s poignant and poetic way with words but Summer Solstice deserves more recondition than it has received. It is a shame that it was never adapted for the screen because like Harvest Home, Summer Solstice would have made a great movie or telefilm.

Hinkemeyer’s book is an important addition to the growing American folk horror cannon, which is why I wanted to spotlight it today. I believe that Summer Solstice deserves a place alongside other early examples including Harvest Home as well as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. I hope to spotlight more forgotten folk horror in future posts because there are many neglected books worthy of rediscovery and an appreciative audience.

In the meantime, I hope readers are enjoying the current Summer Solstice and Midsummer celebrations taking place around the world but do take care. You never know what you might find if you venture off well-traveled roads. Somewhere there maybe a small village that needs some sacrificial lambs for their bonfires!

Recommended reading:
Michael T. Hinkemeyer Oct. 18, 1940 – Nov. 28, 2019 Obituary

Author: Kimberly Lindbergs

Writer, researcher, and artist with eclectic interests.