Horror with Heart: Dot Hutchison’s The Butterfly Garden

The Butterfly Garden (2016)
Written by: Dot Hutchison
Genre: Horror
Pages: 276 (Paperback)
Series: The Collector Trilogy (Book 1)
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer

Why I Chose It: I found the title and a brief synopsis on a list of best horror books. I decided to pick it up because I have been frightened and fascinated by stories of people who were kidnapped and held captive ever since I read Jaycee Dugard’s memoir, A Stolen Life.

The premise:

Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden.

In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies” — young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener, a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.

When the garden is discovered, a survivor is brought in for questioning. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are tasked with piecing together one of the most stomach-churning cases of their careers. But the girl, known only as Maya, proves to be a puzzle herself.

As her story twists and turns, slowly shedding light on life in the Butterfly Garden, Maya reveals old grudges, new saviors, and horrific tales of a man who’d go to any length to hold beauty captive. But the more she shares, the more the agents have to wonder what she’s still hiding…

Spoilers Ahead.


Discussion: This book is exceptionally creepy. It opens with Maya/Inara talking to the FBI agents, so we know from the beginning that something big has happened and at least some of the butterflies are safe. Even though the narrative tension has been spoiled, what happens to the kidnapping victims in the flashbacks is still terrifying. The Gardener is a wealthy older man who kidnaps teenaged girls, tattoos butterfly wings on their backs, and imprisons them in a soundproof atrium called the garden. He also renames them. Maya is the name that the Gardner gives to the narrator; Inara is the name she gave herself.

Once a girl turns twenty-one, the Gardner murders her, then embalms and encases her body in resin to be displayed like a trophy. If the girls become injured, pregnant due to a birth control failure, or can’t acclimate to life as a kidnapping victim, they are killed early. The Gardner uses the butterflies as sex slaves but also deludes himself into thinking he is protecting them. His older son, Avery, is a sadist who tortures and kills the girls for fun. His younger son, Desmond, adds another level of torment to Inara’s life by wanting to be her boyfriend and tantalizing her with the possibility of rescue.

Inara is a strong heroine who makes the story more compelling. She is abandoned by her parents and then runs away to New York City after the death of her grandmother. Maybe it’s because I attended a women’s college, but I found it inspiring that Inara finds love and support among communities of women twice. The first time is with the eclectic group of roommates that she lives with in the city and the second is with her fellow butterflies. When Lyonette, the original caretaker, is killed for turning twenty-one, Inara falls into the role of helping the other girls cope, even though she struggles with being empathetic because of her negligent childhood. Bliss, another butterfly, tells her, “Every morning when I wake up and every night before I fall asleep, I tell myself my name, my family’s names. I remind myself what they looked like” (p. 121). Inara confesses that she has had an easier time adjusting to the garden because she has so few happy memories of the past. Even though Inara is incredibly brave and resilient, she still has moments when she acts like the teenaged girl that she is and talks back to the FBI agents.

I’ve found that death in many horror movies and books feels cartoonish and little unreal. In slasher flicks, no one ever cancels the keg party just because their friend was horribly murdered the day before. Every death in this book hurts. Lyonette starts a heartbreaking tradition of the butterflies using their last moments to tell the other girls their real identities. “My name is Cassidy Lawrence. Please don’t forget me. Don’t let him be the only one to remember me” (p. 44). Evita, a butterfly with intellectual disabilities, is killed in an accidental fall, and the Gardener is strangely distraught by her death. “It was like he’d taken our tears from us, then. Alerted by the screams, the other girls had come running from their rooms or elsewhere in the Garden, and together all twenty-two of us stood in dry-eyed silence as our captor wept for the death of the one girl he hadn’t killed” (p. 81).

There were some aspects of the book that didn’t feel quite plausible to me. The FBI agents estimate that the Gardener has been imprisoning and murdering girls for thirty years without being caught. It seems like his luck should have run out at some point. The garden is a soundproof prison, which the Gardener monitors with hidden cameras. It makes sense that the girls can’t escape but given that there are over twenty butterflies, it is a mystery why they never try to attack and kill the Gardener. The butterflies have free run of the garden and even have access to weapons like scissors. It is implied that they fear psychopathic Avery being in charge instead of his father, but twenty girls could easily kill two men. I also found it strange that when Desmond first discovers the garden, he believes that his father has simply saved the girls from living on the streets. It’s even more bizarre that even when Desmond realizes the truth about the Gardener, he doesn’t go to the police because he wants to protect his family name. I was willing to set aside the credibility issues because I enjoyed the story. Given the abuse of women that wealthy, powerful men have been able to get away with, maybe the events in the book aren’t as unbelievable as I would like to think.

In conclusion: The Butterfly Garden is a quietly horrific book. Hutchinson forces you to imagine being kidnapped and imprisoned, all the while knowing that your life could end at any moment, and it is extremely frightening. Although the book is not graphic or gory, I would not recommend it to anyone who wants to avoid depictions of rape and abuse. Hutchinson also writes very well in the voice of a teenaged girl. The book succeeds because Maya/Inara is a captivating narrator that you want to see survive and succeed. Reading this unique horror novel is worth it.

3 Comments

  • Lane Robins December 12, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    I read this and mostly enjoyed it. Like you, I found the longevity of the Gardener’s crimes to be suspect. And honestly, I started wondering how much more room he had in the tribute hall.
    The final twist seemed a little much, I thought. But the writing was really good and despite the subject matter, it didn’t feel salacious. I really liked Maya. I’ll check out Hutchison’s next book for sure.

    Reply
    • Kelly McCarty December 13, 2017 at 1:39 am

      I have read the second book, The Roses of May, in this loosely defined trilogy. While The Butterfly Garden stretches the bounds of plausibility, The Roses of May strays into the ridiculously unbelievable. It’s not a bad book–Hutchinson is still a good writer with a strong ability to write in the voice of a teenaged girl. But I just couldn’t give it a pass for the implausible elements the way I could with The Butterfly Garden. I probably will still read the third book when it comes out if the library has it.

      Reply
      • Lane Robins December 13, 2017 at 5:05 pm

        Oh that’s kind of disappointing. I do like at least a nod toward plausibility.

        Reply

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