One of our recommended books is Midnight is the Darkest Hour by Ashley Winstead


For fans of Verity and A Flicker in the Dark, Midnight is the Darkest Hour is a twisted tale of murder, obsessive love, and the beastly urges that lie dormant within us all…even the God-fearing folk of Bottom Springs, Louisiana. In her small hometown, librarian Ruth Cornier has always felt like an outsider, even as her beloved father rains fire-and-brimstone warnings from the pulpit at Holy Fire Baptist. Unfortunately for Ruth, the only things the townspeople fear more than the God and the Devil are the myths that haunt the area, like the story of the Low Man,

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For fans of Verity and A Flicker in the Dark, Midnight is the Darkest Hour is a twisted tale of murder, obsessive love, and the beastly urges that lie dormant within us all…even the God-fearing folk of Bottom Springs, Louisiana. In her small hometown, librarian Ruth Cornier has always felt like an outsider, even as her beloved father rains fire-and-brimstone warnings from the pulpit at Holy Fire Baptist. Unfortunately for Ruth, the only things the townspeople fear more than the God and the Devil are the myths that haunt the area, like the story of the Low Man, a vampiric figure said to steal into sinners’ bedrooms and kill them on moonless nights. When a skull is found deep in the swamp next to mysterious carved symbols, Bottom Springs is thrown into uproar—and Ruth realizes only she and Everett, an old friend with a dark past, have the power to comb the town’s secret underbelly in search of true evil.

A dark and powerful novel like fans have come to expect from Ashley Winstead, Midnight is the Darkest Hour is an examination of the ways we’ve come to expect love, religion, and stories to save us, the lengths we have to go to in order to take back power, and the monstrous work of being a girl in this world.

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  • Sourcebooks Landmark
  • Hardcover
  • October 2023
  • 400 Pages
  • 9781728269962

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About Ashley Winstead

Ashley Winstead is the author of Midnight is the Darkest Hour.Ashley Winstead is an academic turned novelist with a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature. She is the author of in My Dreams I Hold a Knife and The Last Housewife. She lives in Houston with her husband, two cats, and beloved wine fridge. You can find her at

Photo Credit: Luis Noble


“A gothic tale that blurs the line between good and evil, love and revenge, and the inherent desire to please our parents while simultaneously struggling to find ourselves. Midnight is the Darkest Hour is unique and unnerving from beginning to end.” Stacy Willingham, New York Times bestselling author of All the Dangerous Things and A Flicker in the Dark

Midnight is the Darkest Hour is a lush, immersive ode to the wildness and violence at the hidden heart of teenage girlhood. The sharp-toothed answer to every fairy tale that warns girls to stay out of the woods…because what if we like what we find? Ashley Winstead has at once crafted an incisive critique of fundamentalism and one of the most unforgettable love stories I’ve ever read, dressed as a thriller that surprises at every turn.” Katie Gutierrez, bestselling author of More Than You’ll Ever Know

“A dark, sultry fever dream of a novel, Midnight is the Darkest Hour is a powerful examination of love, girlhood, and religion. With lush, gorgeous writing and dynamic characterization, Ashley Winstead carefully dismantles the corrupted hierarchy that has ruled a God-fearing small town, and unleashes the trapped scream of being a young woman in the world. This haunting, twisting story will stay with you long after the last page.” Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, author of The Girls Are All So Nice Here

“Ashley Winstead does it again! Making the hairs at the back of your neck prickle while mesmerizing you with prose so rich that you want to dive into this novel with both feet, Winstead delivers another yet multi-layered thriller so nuanced and intricately woven that you absolutely cannot help but race to the end.” Amanda Jayatissa, author of You’re Invited

“Ashley Winstead shows her versatility and virtuosity as an author in this dark, eerie and completely enchanting book about friendship, love and vengeance. Midnight is the Darkest Hour is as creepy as it gets – and a tearjerker to boot! I loved every minute of it.” Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of Just the Nicest Couple

Where the Crawdads Sing meets Twilight meets Thelma and Louise in this brilliantly realized, totally original thriller. Absolutely sensational — I couldn’t put it down.” Clare Mackintosh, New York Times bestselling author

“An excellent, twisty thriller.” —Library Journal, starred review

Discussion Questions

  1. How does reading Twilight alter Ruth’s worldview? Do you think that was a positive or negative change for her? What books have had lasting effects on your perspective?
  2. Ruth observes that “even if you hate your family, you still inherit from them.” What does she mean? What is her inheritance from her parents?
  3. Everett argues that pain is how you know you’re alive. Why does he believe this? How is that belief dangerous throughout the book?
  4. What did the incident with Beth Fortenot teach Ruth about her parents—her father in particular? How does Reverend Cornier uphold and enforce his faith throughout the book?
  5. How do the different characters in the book define justice? Whose definition did you find the most compelling?
  6. What did you make of Everett’s overt desire to protect Ruth in the first half of the book? What are Ruth’s thoughts about it?
  1. Ruth struggles with the idea of people being all bad or all good. How do the events of the book change her thinking about morality? Which of her decisions best reflects her evolving viewpoint?
  2. How would you characterize Ruth’s mother? What does she gain from her obedience and what does it cost her?
  3. How is the idea of community used as a weapon throughout the book?
  4. Everett challenges Ruth by saying he needs to know whom she belongs to. How would you answer that question at the end of the book?
  5. In your opinion, did Everett and Ruth succeed in their unlikely escape? If they were to survive, do you think they could create the life they were dreaming of?


Ruth and Everett’s loyalty transcends their definitions of morality. What was most challenging about balancing these competing beliefs?

I would say Ruth and Everett’s loyalty to each other is their definition of morality. In Bottom Springs, the dominant morality is set forth by Holy Fire Baptist Church. What the church says is good and moral—and by extension what Reverend Cornier says, as Holy Fire’s emissary—is the definition the whole town accepts and lives by. They have to or else face severe ostracization or worse.

What Ruth and Everett model with their resistance is what often happens when morality regimes like Holy Fire’s fundamentalist Christian one clash with what people feel in their hearts to be fair, just, and kind. When what people are told is right doesn’t fit what they’re experiencing in daily life, or fit their instincts for justice, they usually have two choices: either live in a state of cognitive dissonance (much to their psychological peril, like in the case of Ruth’s mother) or develop “countermoralities”: privately held definitions of what’s right and wrong that exist apart from the dominant model. When enough people hold private countermoralities, you have the seeds of social change. You can see this throughout history: for example, society’s growing conviction that many forms of discrimination against women, while considered morally, socially, and legally acceptable for much of human existence, are actually at odds with values of fairness and paved the way for gains in women’s rights. The way Ruth and Everett reject Bottom Springs’s morality and develop their own, based on what the two of them privately understand to be good (loyalty, kindness, making sure people are held accountable for their harms), is a microcosm of the way people have evolved moral consciousness for all time.

And we love these kinds of stories. We love “antiheroes,” or “moral outlaws.” There’s a long tradition in art, and especially literature, of protagonists who act in defiance of prevailing laws or moral rules for reasons we can empathize with, reasons that even make them right. I suspect we’re drawn to these kinds of moral outlaw characters because deep down, we’re all a little more morally relativistic than we might admit. And I think we understand intrinsically what Ruth learns—that what’s right isn’t always what’s legal or holy—and we chafe at the ways our legal and moral systems sometimes fail to match our internal moral compasses. We like to watch antiheroes respond to systems they don’t agree with because we’re interested in seeing what paths are open to us.

Of course, I wanted to really challenge my readers with this book. Because there’s a big difference between, say, Luke Skywalker breaking the legal and moral rules of the authoritarian Galactic Empire and true antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White breaking laws and hurting people to get ahead. I suspect most people who read this book will feel sympathy for Ruth and Everett’s definition of morality over Holy Fire’s. But I wanted to see how far I could push readers’ allegiance by making them guilty of extremely violent and ruthless crimes. Will readers accept these acts, which they would normally categorize as morally reprehensible, as good or neutral because they understand why Ruth and Everett did it? If so, what does that say about us? Do we believe our individual moral compasses are more important than society’s laws? And if so, how far are we willing to let people like Everett push that?

One last thing I’ll say is that with the inclusion of Twilight as an important text to Ruth and with Everett as a kind of Edward figure for her, I wanted to make the case that popular media aimed at young women (like Twilight), which is so routinely dismissed and denigrated, actually falls into the canon of antihero/moral outlaw narratives, which are typically afforded more prestige. That is to say, I think part of the draw of books like Twilight is that the dark, brooding love interest exists at the very edge of, or outside, society and morality. I suspect part of readers’ desire for an Edward Cullen–esque figure, much like Ruth’s desire, is that being loved by him guarantees an escape from the confines of normal society and traditional morality, a life lived in defiance of law, social convention, and what most people would consider right and wrong. And since those systems are things that have never served young women, it’s no wonder they’re longing to escape.

When Ever first mentions his intrusive and violent thoughts, Ruth makes him promise to never speak of them again. How did she think she was helping? What effect did she actually have?

Ruth and Everett are two sides of the same coin. Oppressed by the same system, Ruth becomes the ultimate good girl, learning to play by the rules. What playing by the rules means as a young woman in a fundamentalist society is disappearing—suppressing her independent will, intellect, and desires and becoming a wisp. Ruth earns an A+ in obedience. Everett, on the other hand, is a failure. Where Ruth falls in line, Everett disrupts. He’s the kid who’s always in trouble, the one who won’t play by the rules, and therefore he suffers the consequences of social ostracization and physical and psychological punishments.

During the scene at the docks, Ruth isn’t yet able to see that Everett’s way might actually be the better way to respond to oppression. (She’ll decide it is later in the book.) At this point, she thinks she can help him by teaching him how to fall in line. She knows whatever Everett’s trying to confess to her, it’s something that will get him in trouble, and so she thinks if she can just teach him to do what she does—suppress his thoughts and feelings—she’ll save him from punishment and heartache. But what’s clear to the reader is that Everett is coming to her for a safe space, for help confronting his intrusive thoughts, and repressing them is only going to be unhealthy in the long run (and boy is it!). Believing that she’s acting as Everett’s friend, Ruth is in reality acting as an envoy of the town, reinforcing their message that Everett is unnatural and needs to change. Ruth’s growth arc in the book is one in which she comes to recognize how unhealthy playing by the rules of an oppressive system is and instead embraces causing trouble as an act of justice and moral good.

The Fortenot Fishing wives are well informed but easily overlooked. Why was it important for Ruth to see the power they can wield, even though it doesn’t change her own trajectory?

The Fortenot Fishing wives and Nissa Guidry, Ruth’s beloved colleague at the library, represent a different way of responding to oppression. Rather than confront it head-on as Ruth does when, for example, she shows up at church to declare her father’s sins before burning the place down, the fishing wives and Nissa operate under the radar. Their acts of defiance are quiet and (they hope) undetectable, such as how they keep track of what the men in town are up to through their whisper network, speculate and warn about possible wrongdoing, and protect and shield each other through rumor campaigns and misdirection.

Ruth ultimately doesn’t choose this way of responding because she feels the sins of her father and the other town leaders deserve more radical forms of accountability, and on a pragmatic note, she doesn’t have a husband or family to protect. But it’s important for Ruth to see that she’s not alone in chafing against Holy Fire and the harsh rules that govern people’s lives in Bottom Springs. And she’s not alone in rebelling against it. Truthfully, very few people in real life respond to oppression the way Ruth does, by trying to burn down the system. Most of us quietly rebel like the fishing wives and Nissa, doing what we can in our own ways to make things right and protect the people we care about. It was important to me to show that there are multiple ways of resisting.

Ruth, faced with her father’s power and entrenchment, realizes that “what’s right isn’t the same as what’s lawful or holy.” How should we define justice without the external measures of law or scripture?

Wow, this is the question, isn’t it? I mean, this is one of the questions humanity has been debating since we developed the capacity for abstract thinking and conceived of a thing called “justice.” One of the things I was most interested in exploring through this book—this murder mystery full of crimes—is the question of what makes something a crime in the first place and whether that legal designation (“crime”) is as seamlessly connected to our idea of justice, and thus to a moral system, as we’d like to believe. If it is, whose moral system is the one we all live by? Because certainly, not all humans share the same beliefs. In fact, we’ve been arguing about how to define moral good, and thus justice (and thereby form our laws in response), since way before Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham ever came along, even if their ideas about duty/intention and greatest good, respectively, have come to dominate moral thinking in many Western cultures.

Readers are probably familiar with the phrase “History is written by the winners,” which of course means that our history, and thus how we understand the world, has been unduly influenced by the perspectives of those in power. Midnight is a piece of crime fiction that I hope asks: Is justice also written by the winners? That is, is what’s considered just determined by who’s in power? Is what’s right something we feel intrinsically in our hearts, captured by those little moral compasses we’re said to have, or is it an understanding we inherit from whichever people or ideologies happen to be on top? Certainly, if you look at history, what’s considered just and morally right has changed over time, not to mention differs by culture. What if these concepts are more arbitrary then we would like to believe? Doesn’t that mean they deserve to be consistently challenged to make sure they still hold up? And what do we do with troublemakers, the people who challenge them?

Bottom Springs is haunted not only by the specter of the Low Man but by a moral system that has arisen out of the ultraconservative, patriarchal, fire-and-brimstone teachings of the Holy Fire Church. Everyone in town knows the rules of how they should feel and behave. The church’s definition of morality is so concrete and loudly advertised, it might as well as be law. (Ruth’s awareness of it is so strong that she actually feels as if these rules are surveilling her the way a policeman would.)

And yet, despite the well-understood, commonly agreed-upon moral and legal system governing Bottom Springs, it turns out no one actually believes in it. The leaders of the town are the best example. Ruth’s father, despite being a spokesperson for the church, has his own private definition of morality: whatever makes him powerful, as God’s agent on earth, is what’s moral and good, and whatever obstructs his ascendence is immoral and bad. (Readers who are cynics about organized religion might argue that the reverend’s definition isn’t actually a departure from how the church has acted throughout history.)

For Reverend Cornier, what’s just and what’s legal are clearly not the same thing. That’s why he can run his drug ring without believing he deserves to be punished. And think about how quickly the idea of lawfulness falls apart when the townspeople feel threatened by Everett, who they believe is the Low Man. These formerly peaceful shop owners and fishermen take up torches and guns, ready to kill without trial in order to protect themselves. The townspeople are also clearly comfortable separating what’s legal from what’s just. What’s remarkable about Ruth and Everett may just be that they learned this lesson at an early age when they killed Renard Michaels. In some ways, the lesson was a gift because it forced them to think critically about all accepted wisdom from that point forward.

Let’s say readers are comfortable accepting that crimes aren’t always immoral or unjust actions. And let’s say we can agree that acting in accordance with moral good is more important than acting lawfully. This is where things get messy. Because at this point you have to ask: Okay, then, what makes something morally good? Who gets to define it? Religions like Holy Fire certainly offer their versions. On the secular side, we’ll circle back to Kant and Bentham, who tried to define moral good. Kant said that any action committed with the intention of respecting another person’s humanity and dignity is morally good, regardless of the consequences. For Bentham, the utilitarian, it’s all about the outcome: Did an action produce the best possible good for the greatest number of people, regardless of the intent or even the action? If so, then it’s morally good. Ironically, even though Everett and Ruth are the book’s most prolific and deadly criminals, their actions are the most morally good according to both Kantian and utilitarian theories.

It’s probably obvious by this point, but I think of justice as more personal than many people may want it to be. And I wanted to write a crime novel that wrestled with the difficulty of justice and moral good as concepts. I love books that challenge readers, whether it’s asking them to root for characters that commit awful actions or hate characters that are the heroes on paper. I think that challenge opens room for reflection.

What I specifically hope readers will reflect on is the possibility that a person can act unlawfully or even in ways that seem immoral at first, but when understood in full context, the morality of their actions becomes clear. Or perhaps they possess a moral vision that’s different from the status quo but may be where the status quo needs to evolve to. An obvious example is activists who exist at the edge of what’s legally or morally acceptable—people who defy laws to protest actions they deem immoral or skirt the lines of what’s considered morally acceptable to challenge that very system of morality. I would not claim that Ruth and Everett are some great moral change agents, but sometimes a story has the power to open a reader’s mind and help them look at what’s happening in the world in a fresh light. And I suppose I’d love it if readers finished Midnight and then tried to understand other people’s definitions of justice before judging their actions.

The ending of the book is ambiguous. Why was it important to you to leave Ruth and Ever’s escape unlikely but plausible?

It was important to me to leave Ruth and Everett’s fate in the reader’s hands. Here’s why. At the end of the book, as their car is sailing through the air, Ruth pleads to “God or the Devil or whoever’s listening” to take mercy on her. That “whoever’s listening” is important to me because it holds space for all that’s unknown in the world, all that’s still a mystery about the purpose and meaning of human life. It shows the freedom of mind Ruth has achieved, on one hand, that she’s acknowledging there could be a possible listener outside of the Christian God she’s grown up believing in. But more than that, it shows her desperation. She’s hoping that someone or something is in charge and that they’ll take notice of her, have mercy on her. She’ll take anyone or anything at this point.

The fervent desire that Ruth has for there to be someone out there and for there to be more to this world and our lives than we can see, is actually the central desire that drives every character in the book. It’s the thing Ruth has most in common with her fellow townspeople. While they’re looking for higher meaning and transcendence through Holy Fire Baptist, Ruth is searching for a path everywhere (through romance, through religion, through books). So, in her final plea, Ruth is putting voice to the search that has animated her throughout the story. Are you out there, she asks, and if you are, will you save me?

What Ruth can’t know is that there is someone listening: the reader. The reader becomes the person she’s pleading with. We’re the ones who get to decide whether to forgive her, to find the good in what she’s done, to weigh her and find her worthy or not, and thus imagine that she clears the bridge (or not). In that moment, the reader becomes God. What do you think Ruth and Everett deserve?

Your books all reckon with narratives that govern women’s lives. What do you hope readers will take away from your characters’ responses to and rejections of these narratives?

I love the distinction here about narratives. Because you could say I write books about institutions and people that govern women’s lives: schools, religions, governments, husbands, cult leaders, the criminal justice system, parents, the list goes on. In my books, many of these actors exercise really egregious control over women by physically or legally coercing them. And I’m interested in exploring that form of control and how to resist it, certainly. But what I’m most interested in are, as this question puts it, the narratives women are told or tell themselves that exert maybe a slipperier but no less powerful control.

In each of my thrillers (and honestly in my romance novels too, but that’s a discussion for another day), you might say the chief antagonists my characters face are actually narratives: stories they’ve heard or tell themselves about who they are and how incapable they are of change, about their weaknesses, their inferiority, their inherent lack of value. Stories about how women are supposed to feel and think and behave. These are stories my characters have deeply internalized, and their lives and possibilities are foreclosed by them.

Coming to recognize and resist these narratives is a big part of Ruth’s arc in Midnight. One question I anticipate readers asking is: Why doesn’t Ruth just leave? Readers might even feel frustrated by her for this reason. Why doesn’t she just pack up and drive out of town and never see her parents or Bottom Springs again—what’s stopping her?

Well. A lot, actually. At different points in the book Ruth describes being held in an invisible prison, its bars in her mind, and being tethered to her parents and the town by invisible chains that she herself helps keep fastened. These invisible forms of bondage are the narratives Ruth has been fed since she was born about her weakness, her lack of capacity for change, the inferior quality of her mind, her low place in the world, and what makes her valuable and lovable (namely, how obedient and submissive she is). They’ve set up shop in her mind and even if she knows she shouldn’t, some deep down part of her believes them.

That’s the hard thing about these identity-shaping narratives: even when you know intellectually that you should reject them, the actual doing is difficult because the narratives have shaped you. Sadly, they’re part of you, they’re home, and it takes monumental work to disentangle yourself. This is the kind of work characters like Ruth model. As someone who has done a lot of work to disentangle myself from harmful narratives that were keeping me small and afraid, I take great joy in writing female characters who liberate themselves and, furthermore, do so in ways both quiet and quotidian and wild, earth-shattering, and bombastic. I hope what readers take away are possible paths they might try, too.