Three Horror reads for this Halloween Season: TWO TO KEEP, ONE TO SKIP.
The Family Plot by Cherie Priest (Tor Books, September 2016) is Southern Gothic meets Haunted Mansion: Dahlia works at a salvage shop contracted by one Augusta Withrow to strip a historic mansion to its bones – they have to take the work: it sounds like the mansion will yield the treasures they need in order to save their own business from bankruptcy.
Pretty much everything you need to know about the book and what to expect is made plain in the first two chapters: Augusta wants to get rid of the house and see it destroyed as soon as possible instead of attempting to sell it; she is not entirely forthcoming about the why. We are told there are rooms that have not been opened for over a century (can you hear the sound of DOOM) and as soon as Dahlia and her team arrive they find a treasure trove of old riches and the lingering ghostly remains of those who inhabited the house just as a storm threatens to trap them in the property.
The Family Plot is the type of horror novel that knows it’s a horror novel and plays every single card available in the Scary Ghost Cliché Book. Every single scare is telegraphed from chapter one and yet… I was scared shitless reading this exactly because I knew those scares were coming. The thing is: there are enough clever subversions to make this feel fresh rather than stale. Take for example the fact that most of the members of the team, although scared to start with, take the existence of ghosts – especially ghosts at salvage houses – as something that is par for the course with the work they do. The problem is that this particular house seems to have not only the odd ghost but also an angry poltergeist. Finding out who and why is part of the fun, so is navigating the complicated family dynamics in the novel and finding out about Dahlia’s own past and anger (that seems to correlate to that of the poltergeist). It also helps that Cherie Priest is such an excellent writer, with beautiful, atmospheric prose.
Rating: 7 – Very Good and one to keep
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw is another fantastic Tor.com novella (October 11). Lovecraft meets Noir when a private dick named John Persons is hired by a ten-year-old boy to kill the kid’s stepfather, an abusive husband with a monstrous personality that might go beyond the surface. Lucky for Persons – and the kid – Persons himself has a surprise hidden under his skin. But when Persons’ investigation around London leads him down a path that could unleash ancient horrors.
Here is the thing about Hammers on Bone: it disguises more than its monsters. It’s a story that looks at abuse (and its emotional toll on women), that asks uncomfortable questions. It’s less scary than it’s unsettling and more self-aware than it ought to be.
Hammers on Bone is a delectable surprise, a discomfiting nightmare in novella shape, its eyes looking back at you to ask: who are the real monsters, little reader?
Rating: 8 – Excellent and one to keep
The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics (Harlequin Teen/ Simon and Schuster UK, September 2016) is the author’s sophomore novel, following last year’s Daughters Unto Devils, a book I enjoyed very much. Sadly, The Women in the Walls is not as good.
Lucy is an Acosta: a proud, self-controlled lineage whose Victorian ancestral mansion and estate is central to their legacy. Her mother died when she was three and since then her life has been navigating the halls of her house with her distant father and her beloved aunt Penelope and cousin Margaret.
But then one day her aunt walks into the woods and doesn’t return, leaving Lucy bereft and her cousin lost and angry. Slowly, they both begin to unravel: Lucy finds succour in the self-harming that has been her relief for so long whilst Margaret starts to lose her mind, claiming she hears the voice of her mother through the walls. As the mysteries of heir ancestral home begin to be revealed so do the secret lives of the Acostas.
The novel unfortunately relies far too much on Super Dark and Gory Twists without providing the necessary emotional gravitas to make them stick because of its bland, underdeveloped characters. The Women in the Walls is book-ended by a super promising beginning and a horrific ending but has an oddly dissatisfying, meandering middle.
Rating: 4 – This is the one to skip.