The latest addition to the mythology of the artistic process is The Writing Retreat, a “dark and atmospheric” thriller by Julia Bartz (kindly sent to me for review by Oneworld and Bloomsbury).

Struggling writer Alex manages to stumble into a spot at an intensive writers’ workshop run by her idol, Roza Vallo, a queer feminist horror writer who relishes her enigmatic reputation. Unfortunately, Alex’s former-BFF, Wren, will also be in attendance. There’s some bad blood between them, and it all threatens to come to a head at Roza’s remote (haunted?) mansion.

Why would Alex attend at all, then? Aside from the chance to meet Roza, there’s also a major publishing deal on offer to whichever attendee writes the best book. It’s like the Bachelor, except instead of dates and roses, there’s word counts and editorial feedback.

Now, here’s where blurb is a bit misleading. On the back of my copy, it says: “Alex’s long-extinguished dream now seems within reach. But then the women begin to die.” That’s not quite what happens. One of them goes missing in a snowstorm, and while trying to track her down, the other attendees discover some horrifying secrets about the true nature of the writing retreat.

Bartz leans heavy into the haunted house tropes, without the masterful prose to hold them up (“Her voice was soft and steely,” for instance, page 102). I think she was aiming for a Carmen Maria Machado vibe, but the end result goes way wide. Plus, it bore almost no resemblance to any such retreat I’ve ever encountered – The Writing Retreat is to actual writers’ retreats as Grey’s Anatomy is to doctoring.

If you really need something to read on holidays, you could pick worse from the Little Free Library than The Writing Retreat, but don’t expect too much from it.

Buy The Writing Retreat on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)