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The Paleontologist

A Novel

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About The Book

USA TODAY BESTSELLER
2024 ITW Thriller Award Winner
Esquire “Best Horror Books of 2023” Pick


A haunted paleontologist returns to the museum where his sister was abducted years earlier and is faced with a terrifying and murderous spirit in this chilling novel.

Curator of paleontology Dr. Simon Nealy never expected to return to his Pennsylvania hometown, let alone the Hawthorne Museum of Natural History. He was just a boy when his six-year-old sister, Morgan, was abducted from the museum under his watch, and the guilt has haunted Simon ever since. After a recent breakup and the death of the aunt who raised him, Simon feels drawn back to the place where Morgan vanished, in search of the bones they never found.

But from the moment he arrives, things aren’t what he expected. The Hawthorne is a crumbling ruin, still closed amid the ongoing pandemic, and plummeting toward financial catastrophe. Worse, Simon begins seeing and hearing things he can’t explain. Strange animal sounds. Bloody footprints that no living creature could have left. A prehistoric killer looming in the shadows of the museum. Terrified he’s losing his grasp on reality, Simon turns to the handwritten research diaries of his predecessor and uncovers a blood-soaked mystery 150 million years in the making that could be the answer to everything.

Excerpt

Chapter One: Something Is Coming CHAPTER ONE SOMETHING IS COMING
Sixty-six million years after the asteroid Chicxulub slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula and set in motion the extinction of three quarters of life on Earth, Dr. Simon Nealy turned his gaze toward the heavens, oblivious to the terror hurtling toward him at unfathomable speed. Unlike the last day of the Cretaceous Period, there was no gigantic orb in the sky, its luminous edges racing outward to swallow the horizon. There was nothing at all in the atmosphere to suggest Simon’s world was about to change forever.

Steely clouds hung low over Hawthorne Hollow, the flat-bottomed basin sunk into the Appalachian woodland like the imprint of a giant’s fist. Rather than a shock wave of superheated ash, an icy wind threaded through the trees encircling the clearing. It carried not the wails of prehistoric creatures set ablaze, but the fragrant rustling of autumn leaves. Their red-and-gold vibrancy might have resembled a world on fire if not for the mist that dulled it; thickest near the ground, it churned around the paleontologist’s shins, merging and eddying like opposing flows of silver lava.

But it wasn’t the dismal November weather that caused Simon to falter before his new institution of employment. That he owed to the great edifice itself. The craggy facade of red sandstone loomed above him like a desert butte.

Twenty-two years had passed since Simon had looked upon the museum—a blink of an eye in geologic terms—and yet it was all but unrecognizable. Once the crowning jewel of southeast Pennsylvania, the Hawthorne Museum of Natural History had been left to decay in the mire of its flagging prestige like a once mighty Edmontosaurus caught in a peat bog.

Set in sprawling lawns scabbed with necrotic patches of brown, the three-story building was a moldering embarrassment to Neo-Romanesque architecture. The gabled roof, pockmarked with missing shingles, buckled like paper that had met with a spill. The windows were opaque with grime, many riven with spidery cracks sealed with duct tape. Weeds twisted up the base like snakes attempting to scale the facade, and the dome that protruded above the north wing resembled a badly infected hernia, raw and blackened where the masonry had fallen away. Even the tarnished clock over the arched entrance was halted in a state of disrepair; the hands pointed motionlessly at fifty minutes past one.

Altogether it put Simon in mind of a great decomposing carcass buzzing with flies. He adjusted the mask protecting his face, sealing the top beneath his glasses to keep the lenses from fogging, as if to hold the stench at bay.

But his qualms with the Hawthorne ran deeper than its clear financial woes; those were to be expected. Even Chicago’s illustrious Field Museum, where Simon had been employed for the past six years, was feeling the impact of the ongoing pandemic. His hands jittered at his sides, and his stomach roiled with unease. What are you doing here? he thought for the umpteenth time—but deep down, he knew the answer.

Marshaling his courage, he proceeded up the crumbling limestone steps. The oak doors towered above him like the trees they’d been made from, out of proportion with his scrawny five-foot-three frame. He paused before the motto inscribed above the entrance: IN OSSIBUS TERRAE VERITAS INVENIETUR. Simon had never studied Latin, but his familiarity with the conventions of scientific naming gave him a rough sense of its meaning.

In the bones of the Earth shall the truth be found.

He drew himself up and pulled the handle. The door didn’t budge. He tried the other one, but it too resisted. Fearing his strength was to blame, he gripped both handles and leveraged all of his 105 pounds against them, but there was nothing for it: the doors were well and truly locked.

With a sigh, Simon rapped on the wood.

“Hello?” he called out.

When after several attempts there was still no answer, he stepped back and spied the windows above for some sign of movement.

“Hello?” he shouted up. “Is anyone there?” How could there not be? He’d been instructed to report to the museum at nine. That was just three minutes from now according to his phone, whose last dwindling bar of service he eyed with consternation.

Returning the device to his pocket, he turned to assess the paved roundabout in front of the museum. The loop circled a bronze statue on a plinth, the likeness of a man Simon didn’t recognize. With nowhere to park, Simon had been forced to abandon his aging sedan in the dirt shoulder of the narrow, wooded driveway and hike the remaining quarter mile to the front of the building.

Now, a feeling of unease crawling about his heart, he fought the urge to retrace his steps and flee.

He resumed his place before the door and pounded.

Hello,” he shouted. “Is anyone there?

The sound of a bolt sliding in the lock cut his question short. A door opened and Simon stumbled back from the head that appeared there.

“Damn, boy,” it said, “can’t you see we’re closed!”

The head was attached to an older man with a dark pitted face, silver curls receding from his forehead in a wobbly semicircle. He stood nearly a foot taller than Simon, who bristled at being addressed as boy. For years he had been tormented for his childlike stature. Given the regularity with which he was still mistaken for a preteen in public, it remained a sensitive subject.

“Sorry to disturb you, er, Maurice,” he said, noting the name on the embroidered patch on the man’s coveralls. His eyes paused on the blue surgical mask hanging uselessly around Maurice’s neck. “I’m Simon Nealy.”

The man tugged up the mask to just under his nose. “Don’t matter what you’re called, the museum’s closed and been closed for months. You blind, or don’t you know how to read?” He pointed to a sheet of paper taped to the other door.

CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE

BECAUSE OF COVID

“I can,” Simon said sniffily. “But I work here. That is to say, today’s my first day—”

“Nobody told me about that. Not that anybody tells me anything unless they got trash that needs taking out. Now please, I ain’t got time to stand around here all day, not with a whole museum that needs cleaning and just me to do it—”

“Sorry,” Simon said, aghast. “Did you say just you?”

“There was three of us at the start of the year. Laid off the other two as soon as we shut down. Thought I was the lucky one. Now they sitting at home collecting unemployment plus three hundred dollars a week, and here I am working like a dog to clean a museum that won’t never be nothing but nasty. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

“Wait,” Simon said, fumbling his phone back out of his pocket. “Please, I can prove it. I have an email from my boss, Dr. Roach.”

“Who the hell?”

“Harrison Roach?” Simon was beginning to worry he had reported to the wrong Hawthorne Museum altogether. “Vice president of research and collections?”

“You mean Harry. Shit, you’re working for Harry, huh? Guess that makes you the new Bert, rest his soul.”

“Is that the old paleontologist? Is he—” Simon said, and thought better of it.

“Bit younger than I expected, anyway.” Maurice coughed out a wheezy chuckle, which Simon interpreted incorrectly as a dig at his age.

In fairness, it would not be the first. Just a few weeks earlier the local newspaper, the Wrexham Gazette, had run an article on Simon’s hiring that, even while touting his pedigree, took potshots at his inexperience. “At thirty-one, Dr. Nealy will be the youngest director of paleontology and curator of Dinosauria in the museum’s history, a title traditionally reserved for professionals two decades or more into their careers.”

This was not untrue per se, but if the museum’s leadership hadn’t questioned Simon’s age, then what business had anyone else?

The position had been posted for a full seven months before Simon decided to apply, and another two before, to his great surprise—for he’d already given up hope of hearing back and decided on the whole it was probably for the best—he received an email inviting him for the first in a series of virtual interviews. Over the course of weeks, Simon had met with HR, Harry, Harry again with a trusted consultant, the executive director on his own, and finally a sampling of the board of directors, before he’d at last been made an offer he couldn’t refuse, despite the voice in his head telling him to run for the hills.

“Aright, aright,” Maurice said, evidently having been giving Simon a hard time. He grinned, stood back, and waved the younger man in.

As he crossed the threshold, Simon experienced a moment of visceral contradiction: the lure of his new life pulling him in and the warning hand of memory thrusting him back.

He stood in a cavernous hall of marble floors and high vaulted ceilings, ending in a handsome split staircase leading up to a wraparound mezzanine. Even by the tepid light filtering in through the cathedral windows (for the sconces on the walls were either switched off or defective), it was clear that only the gleaming floors had received any of Maurice’s attention in months. The unoccupied ticket desk by the entrance supported a nasty pelt of dust and a parasitic gift shop, stocked with dull coffee table books, faded postcards, and floppy, beady-eyed plushes. Even through his mask Simon perceived a dank smell on the air. A spray of black fungus that looked disconcertingly like mold darkened the corners of the room like a colony of spiders.

A shiver rattled through him, unrelated to the frigid temperature of the room. His misgivings about his new position seemed to deepen by the minute.

They released him, however—at least momentarily—as he looked up, gazing through the cloud of dust motes swirling like plankton in the light. His heart sprang into his throat at the sight of three prehistoric skeletons suspended from the ceiling, articulated in overlapping poses of flight. The largest, a Quetzalcoatlus, was a middling example of the species’ magnitude, its wingspan stretching thirty feet, with an eight-foot-long neck ending in a small skull and a pointed beak like a supersized stork’s. The Pteranodon was smaller, with a twenty-two-foot wingspan, a shorter neck, and a backward-facing cranial crest like a yard-long spike jutting from the back of its head. The Ornithocheirus was slighter still, yet fiercer than any modern bird or flying mammal: sixteen feet from wing tip to wing tip, with semicircular ridges on its snout and the underside of its lower jaw, giving its beak a paddle-like shape, with short pointed teeth protruding at the sides.

Simon had forgotten the pterosaurs; the events of his fateful visit at the age of ten had swallowed up all but his most powerful memories of this place. But in that moment it all came flooding back. The dark shape of them against the lighter gray of the ceiling. The dynamism of their poses. The jaw-dropping awe they inspired in him even now, despite the sickening dread that had been brewing inside of him all morning.

Maurice registered Simon’s goofy smile with a smirk of his own. “Guess you really like dinosaurs, huh?”

The question reverberated through the hall in a ghostly echo. Really like dinosaurs… like dinosaurs… dinosaurs…

“Technically,” Simon said, “these are pterosaurs. You might know them as pterodactyls, a clade of prehistoric flying reptile that lived contemporaneously—”

“Ah, shit.” Maurice batted a hand. “See you around, dino boy.” He turned and hobbled off.

“Wait—Maurice. You wouldn’t happen to know the way to Harry’s office?”

“Sure I do, but he ain’t there. Nobody’s there. They all working from home.”

Working from home?

“What would you advise?” Simon called after him.

It startled him how suddenly the custodian halted. An eerie quiet reverberated through the hall, strumming through Simon like a strain of silent music.

Maurice turned his head an inch to the side. “My advice?”

Simon nodded.

“You hear something in the dark, don’t go looking for it.”

About The Author

Photograph by Chelsea Valentine

Luke Dumas is the author of the novel A History of Fear. His nonfiction has appeared in Literary Hub, Hobart, Last Exit, Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature, and more. He received his master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh and is a graduate of the University of Chicago. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (October 31, 2023)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668018262

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Raves and Reviews

"A delicious and intense psychological thriller with just enough supernatural to have horror overtones. If "Night at the Museum" meets The Shining with a heavy Jurassic Park influence has an appeal, then this is the book for you. Be prepared for surprises the whole way."—Barnes and Noble, Monthly Pick

"Well-rendered characters and an original premise once again distinguish Dumas’s unnerving second thriller...Fans of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic will relish this suspenseful and moving page-turner."—Publishers Weekly

“Attention, please, Blumhouse: here’s your next blockbuster. The Paleontologist is Night at the Museum as reimagined by Michael Crichton and Stephen King—an extravagantly fun creature-feature, a shivery haunted-house chiller, and an unexpectedly moving meditation on grief. Luke Dumas’s uncommonly intelligent novels—evocative and provocative enough for the book-club set, sufficiently scary (and then some) for those who like to keep their pulses hard at work—thrill me and move me and thrill me some more.”—A. J. Finn, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window

Praise for A History of Fear

"A methodical story about evil—its mystery and its toll—takes its murderous narrator past the brink of sanity. . . . Lean and propulsive, this dissection of evil marches forward with a deadly logic and sleight of hand, with occasional gaps filled in by an enterprising journalist and a Scottish information commissioner. The key is that we feel for Grayson as he leads us up to the brink of his terrible deed. The characters surrounding him, from his ghoulish family to his annoying roommate to his eventual victim, come to life on the page, all part of Grayson’s living nightmare. . . . It’s a patient pursuit and a patient book, one that builds without the reader quite realizing it. It blurs the line between mental illness and something less definable, more supernatural and sinister. A muscular, enigmatic, and devilishly smart read." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“[A] stellar debut, a complex whydunit . . . . Admirers of Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist will be riveted.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Open A History of Fear at your own risk, because it will consume you and your time until you have turned the final page—and even then, the world Luke Dumas exposes will take up residence in your mind, rent free, though perhaps not consequence-free.”—Kristopher Zgorski, BOLO Books

"A delicious walk along the razor's edge between the imagined and the supernatural, A History of Fear is candy for readers who like their thrills real and their horror a worrying whisper in their head." —Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist and The Residence

A History of Fear presents itself as a disquieting cache of nightmares, a nested doll narrative that reads like a found-footage Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. Readers, beware: this novel is not safe and will have you questioning what's real for many sleepless nights to come.” —Clay McLeod Chapman, author of The Remaking, Whisper Down the Lane, and Ghost Eaters

"A History of Fear succeeds on so many levels—as a haunting tale of the supernatural, a harrowing story of suspense, and a stark warning about the power of our inner demons. I consumed this book breathlessly, and every time I think of its jaw-dropping ending, I feel a chill all over again." —Megan Collins, author of The Family Plot

"A History of Fear is a disorienting, creepy, paranoia-inducing reimagining of the devil-made-me-do-it tale. A clever, twisty novel, imbued with emotional and psychological insight. Luke's vision of Old Scratch left me thrilled and looking over my shoulder." —Paul Tremblay, author of The Cabin at the End of the World and The Pallbearers Club

“A History of Fear deftly plays with perception and will have you questioning what is real and what horrors we are capable of. A modern-day Gothic tale with claws, it latches into you and doesn’t let go.” —Jennifer Fawcett, author of Beneath the Stairs

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