Our protagonist – known only as “A.” – inherits a huge mansion from an American “second-cousin twice-removed”. A. had never even heard of Ambrose Wells until after the man committed suicide by throwing himself from his bedroom window at the age of 50. Incidentally, Ambrose’s father threw himself from the same window, at the same age.
Now A. finds himself incredibly rich, having gotten Axton House and all its contents. He moves in, along with his ‘companion’ Niamh (pronounced “Neve”; it’s gaelic), a mute teenage punk with blue and violet dreadlocks. Since A. is only 23 he figures he’s got 27 years before Axton House can drive him to suicide, and he and Niamh enthusiastically face the building’s many mysteries – the strange deaths of its previous owners, rumours that the House is haunted, the disappearance of the butler who worked there all his life, the coded messages left by Ambrose Wells, a secret society that met at the House. It’s a House with “supernatural enhancements” (an Edith Wharton quote). Soon, A. starts having disturbingly vivid dreams and nightmares, always featuring the same people, images and events, and these gradually start to affect his health and sanity. There is also an unexplained break-in at the House, after which Niamh gets a dog who she prudently names Help.
A. and Niamh go to great lengths to record their experiences. A. keeps a diary, a dream journal, and regularly writes letters to an Aunt Liza, detailing everything that happens to them and the steps they’re taking to solve the mystery. Because she’s mute, Niamh communicates using a notebook, and in her spare time she fills in the other speakers’ parts of the conversation, so that she’s basically got a written record of all her conversations. She also buys a voice recorder and video camera, and – when the situation in the House gets more threatening – she sets up surveillance cameras everywhere. These documents, as well as transcriptions of notable audio and video recordings, are what make up the narrative of The Supernatural Enhancements.
The blurb claims that “[w]hat begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in Cantero’s wholly original modern-day adventure”, and this is one of the few occasions where I’d say the blurb is spot-on.
At first the book has a creepy tone, when A. starts to see the rumoured ghost in the bathroom. However, the ghost turns out to be a relatively minor issue, an entry point to grander schemes. As A. and Niamh investigate, the creepy ghost story gives way to mystery and adventure with a bit of action and quite a lot of danger.
What makes the book “wholly original” is, I think, the strangeness of the story that unfolds, a kind of charming metafictional humour (more on that in a bit), and partly the way virtually everything about this book adds to its mystery – the plot, the setting, the characters, the narrative structure, the writing style. I’ve already explained as much of the plot as I can without starting to spoil it. The size and grandeur of Axton House alone gives it an air of mystery, but A. also notes that the house seems to exist in a different time:
when you’re near enough to touch it with your fingertip, it just feels old. Not respectable old, but godforsaken old. Like a sepia-colored photograph, or Roman ruins that miraculously avoided tourist guides. This house ages differently. It’s like those bungalows that endure decades, but are awake only three months a year in summer, so that they live one year, but age four. This happens to Axton House and the things within, “all of its contents.” They stand on the brink of the twenty-first century, but their age pulls them back. Maybe that’s why everything in it is or seems anachronistic; a newspaper in it is outdated; any accessory falls out of fashion; Ambrose Wells lived in 1995 looking like a gentleman from 1910s London. I am starting to feel it myself—like time is running faster than me, and I have to catch up. Like I’m stuck on the bank of a river while the space-time continuum keeps flowing. Like I’m being forgotten from the universe.
A. and Niamh are rather mysterious themselves. We don’t know what A. was studying when he left university in Europe for the States, or where exactly he’s from, although apparently Niamh’s English is better than his. We don’t know exactly why he’s only referred to as “A.” while Niamh gets a name rather than just a letter. We’re told that Niamh comes from Dublin and that she’s had a shit childhood, but little else. It’s not even clear what their relationship is. They sleep in the same bed, but for safety rather than intimacy.
Then there’s the fact that the story is composed only of documents – A.’s diary, his dream journal, Niamh’s notebook, letters to Aunt Liza, transcripts of audio and video recordings, excerpts from academic journals, and news articles. Who compiled this and why? Do these accounts differ from ‘reality’? What would we be reading if we got an omniscient third-person POV? Also, why does A. write so many letters to Aunt Liza? She almost never replies, and it’s not stated whether she is A.’s aunt or Niamh’s, although both seem to have a good relationship with her.
The writing style or voice is also very odd – a somewhat pretentious old-fashioned style used by A. and whoever did the audio and video transcripts. The story is set in 1995, but A. writes like a character from a 19th century gothic novel. This is not a flaw – Cantero does it self-consciously, as a kind of joke that happens to put you in the right frame of mind for a gothic mystery in a giant haunted house. Niamh actually laughs at A.’s prose too, declaring his opening paragraphs to be the “[w]orst beginning ever written and saying he reads too much Lovecraft (he’s not that bad, and he’s quite funny, but you get the point). A. himself mentions several times that this whole story is a bit overdramatic, but it’s clear that this is the point – it’s entertaining.
I have to say though, that the writing style doesn’t always work for me. Some parts of the book were enjoyable to read, while other bits were tedious. The scenes composed mostly of dialogue read very quickly and clearly, even when characters are infodumping. A.’s letters are good too, focused but also amusing. His diary is ok. I found his dream journal tedious, but I generally find dream sequences a pain to read.
The occasions when I completely disliked the writing style were in some of the passages of description provided for the video recordings. The style is very similar to A.’s and sometimes it gets far too lavish for the content. It tends to draw your attention away from the action, and can be very boring to read. Here are some examples:
An extremely indecisive second lingers by, pondering whether to elapse or not, and finally does.
Droning brightness saturates all whites in the image, swelling in a luminous aura like icy embers.
An autumn carpet of white and sepia paper sheets lies over the gallery like war propaganda from an enemy fighter.
This style is ok when it’s just a line or two, but for the longer descriptive passages I would have preferred clear, simple prose to allow the action to take centre stage. If Cantero is trying to imply that A. wrote this, with his signature verbosity, then purple prose makes sense, but it still hurts the story. Other pieces of writing dragged the story down too. The academic articles were a bit dull, and there were some very long, dense explanations of code-breaking that I eventually gave up on and just skimmed through.
On the whole, I thought the book was… ok. It could be playful, exciting and tense, but at other times it dragged or just lost my interest. I liked A., Niamh and their utterly adorable dog Help, but it can be difficult to keep track of other characters. The big reveals didn’t resonate with me much, although I enjoyed the climax and the way Cantero leaves you with fresh questions to ponder at the end. If you’re looking for a gothic adventure, thrilling but not too dark, you might enjoy this.