Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler

NyctophobiaTitle: Nyctophobia
Author: Christopher Fowler
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Solaris Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, gothic
Rating: 7/10

Callie, an unemployed London architect, has just escaped her troubled life and infuriatingly critical mother by marrying a charming, wealthy Spaniard. With no reason to want to stay in London, she’s happy to Andalusian Spain as he has longed to do, and is even more excited when she finds Hyperion House. It’s a fascinating, unique piece of architecture – built into a cliff, most of the house is designed to be flooded with sunlight, while the smaller section within the cliff is left in total darkness.

The house is isolated from the nearest village but comes with a gardener and housekeeper who have worked there for their entire lives. With no job and no obligations except looking after her husband’s young daughter, Bobbie, Callie decides to investigate the mysteries of the house and write a book about it. However, the dark rooms at the back awaken her nyctophobia – fear of the dark – and exploring them fills her with dread. Her fear might not be unfounded – there seem to be ghostly people living in the back of the house, caged in the darkness. At first Callie only catches glimpses of these ghosts, but they become increasingly malevolent, and she’s convinced that what they want is to escape and take over the happy lives of the people living in the light.

When it comes to horror, the stories I find most disturbing are the ones that cut closest to the bone. Zombies might be interesting, but I don’t seriously expect to see one. Bizarre science experiments can offer great ideas, but it’s a bit remote for someone who doesn’t work in that field. But the fear of an unseen presence, in the darkness, at home, is something primal that just comes to me naturally (I’m sure everyone thinks about it at some point), so a story about ghosts in mysterious locked rooms is pretty likely to keep me up at night.

And this is one of the things that I thought the novel did well. It moves very slowly and takes a while to build up any kind of tension or intrigue, but when Callie finally starts exploring those dark rooms, it’s incredibly creepy.

The house itself is interesting, and I particularly like the way the author entwines setting, plot and character. Hyperion House is not just a well-lit house with big windows. It’s designed so that the bright side captures and reflects all the available sunlight, from dawn until the very last moment of the sunset. It’s filled with clocks, so that the housekeeper knows exactly when to start turning on the lights, and the occupants never have to be in dark or even dim light before they go to sleep. Such a marvel is perfectly suited to the hot, sunny Spanish climate. As someone who tends to move around to the warmest, brightest parts of the house, I thought this sounded absolutely wonderful. Nevertheless, it’s clear that it can be disconcerting. Callie notes that the shadows don’t move, which is faintly disturbing. She finds it increasingly difficult to be in the dark, and develops some health problems from the constant exposure to light.

Eventually, Callie figures out that the architect designed the house to protect his wife from her own nyctophobia, the same fear that is being reawakened in Callie. But this raises a critical question – if the architect’s wife suffered from a fear of the dark, and the house was designed so she could avoid darkness, why build perpetually dark rooms at the back?

There’s also something suspicious about the way the construction of the house is based on doubles. It’s a classic horror trope that normally refers to people but works well in architecture too:

The house appeared to have been constructed according to strict principles based on pairs, twins, opposites and doubles. For every statue there was a matching one, every chair was one of two, every ornament had its mate, every tile and section of cornicing had its opposite number. This determined symmetry had a curiously calming effect, as if it was impossible to find anything alone and out of place.

In addition, the rooms at the back are mirror versions of the main house, except that they’re much smaller and decorated with cheap, shabby furniture and ornaments.

The construction of the house mirrors Callie’s personal problems. Like the architect’s wife, she has nyctophobia. There are also parallels with her slightly problematic marriage. She loves Mateo and they seem very happy, but she can’t deny that marrying him has saved her from some of her biggest problems – unemployment and living with her mother. She has a deeply troubled past that she keeps secret for fear of driving him away. Like the house, Callie tries to emphasise the light while keeping the darkness locked away.

Her psychological issues and the threat of ghosts are skilfully echoed in larger social problems, which are frequently mentioned as as an integral part of the Spanish setting. One of the reasons Mateo was able to buy the house is that it become cheaper because of the economic downturn, which “hangs over everything like a spectre”. Spain – and the quiet Andalusian countryside in particular – is described as being full of ghosts because people cling to memories of the Civil War, unable to move on. The little town of Gaucia is described as being old-fashioned and superstitious, no matter how modern they try to be. That struggle between past and present continues throughout the novel – the characters may use iPads, call each other on Skype or listen to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, but everything around them seems like it has barely changed in a century. It’s like the past is a weight dragging the present down into the darkness, and Spain, like Callie, can’t or won’t deal with the problems that the past represents.

All this serves to make Nyctophobia a fairly sophisticated, thoughtful horror novel. And it keeps a firm grip on those themes until the very end, rather than unraveling in a chaotic scare-fest, as some horror novels tend to.

That said, Nyctophobia fails to be a great novel. It’s marred by flaws that bug me too much to be overlooked. Firstly, it lacks a pervasive sense of horror until fairly late in the book. In some ways the narrative is constructed like the house, so that the creepy bits are confined to the dark rooms. I might have been on edge when Callie went into the darkness, but I seldom felt any tension when she was out in the light, especially since the plot moves quite slowly. Perhaps this was intentional, but I would have liked a bit more of the uncanny.

Then, a major problem with Nyctophobia is one common to horror stories – information is withheld for the sake of the story, in a way that can be frustrating or seem contrived. Characters who know exactly what’s going on refuse to explain anything, offering no more than a few cryptic clues until the big reveal at the end. The protagonist, in turn, asks the wrong questions or avoids talking about what scares him or her for fear of  being assumed to be insane (this is understandable, but still annoying).

In this case, Callie avoids telling Mateo about her fears, even when it seems perfectly reasonable to do so, like asking him to accompany her while she explores the dark rooms. Mateo, she keeps telling us, is very old-fashioned, and she doesn’t want to risk driving him away with all this unpleasantness. If she starts going on about ghosts, Mateo’s going to see her as a stereotypically irrational woman. Mateo actually knows a few significant details about the house, but he opts to be a patronising twat and keeps silent while Callie puzzles through it herself, so that she has something to keep her occupied. Callie could get help from the housekeeper Rosita, who obviously knows everything, but Rosita is playing a mysterious, cranky old lady and isn’t going offer anything but cryptic clues until Callie has figured it all out for herself (one of those “you wouldn’t have understood” scenarios). Later, after Callie digs up some info from a variety of old documents, we learn that it was mostly common knowledge to the townspeople, but they either did not want to tell her or were prevented from communicating with her.

The only advantage to this is the sense that Callie is being deceived and manipulated, which adds a teeny bit of intrigue. And Callie, with her many insecurities, starts to wonder if people are deliberately toying with her. But mostly it just feels like the author is clumsily regulating the flow of information to suit his story, and I find that irritating.

But despite its shortcomings, Nyctophobia is a decent read. I think it would appeal to fans of gothic fiction, with its measured pace punctuated by intense, otherworldly scares. Personally, I liked it for the intimacy of its horror (at home, in the dark, so it’s going to resonate with me the moment I go to bed), and the way the author entwined this so neatly with social and psychological ‘ghosts’.

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Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Snowblind Christopher GoldenTitle: Snowblind
Author: Christopher Golden
Published:
 
21 January 2014
Publisher: 
St Martin’s Press
Genre:
 
fantasy, thriller
Source: 
own copy
Rating:
 4/10

A vicious blizzard hits the small New England town of Coventry, bringing with it far more than severe cold and power failures. Scary ice monsters move through the storm, stealing away the living, and feeding on the souls of the dead.

Twelve years later, the citizens of Coventry are still mourning the loss of the eighteen people who died in that storm. Detective Joe Keenan still wishes he could have saved the two boys who died when they tried to go sledding. Doug Manning lost his wife Cherie, and has turned to crime as he struggles to make ends meet thanks to the recession. Ella and TJ are also struggling to keep their restaurant – and their marriage – afloat. Their daughter Grace was unexpectedly conceived on the night of the big blizzard, but TJ also lost his mother. Jake Shapiro still had nightmares about the death of his little brother Isaac. Their mother Allie not only mourns the loss of her son, but also the death of the man she was falling in love with.

Now another a huge blizzard is coming, and some people are acting even stranger than usual. The ghosts of the dead have returned, and they’re taking over the bodies of the living. But their sudden return to life won’t last long, because the ice men are coming to take back what’s theirs.

Well, as you can see from my rating of 4/10, I didn’t particularly care for this one. I liked the prospect of a ghost story reminiscent of Stephen King, but it’s very bland. It’s more of a drama about love, loss, friendship and family than a horror novel. The ice monsters are creepy, but they’re mostly there to facilitate the more personal stories. They kill loved ones, the loved ones come back as ghosts and are reunited with the living, but then the ice men threaten to take them away again. The ice men have very little time on the page – they appear briefly during the first storm, and again at the climax of the novel.

If you’re wondering about the ghosts who return, well they’re not creepy, with the slight exception of an old woman who possesses the body of an 11-year-old girl, but acts just like a blunt, disapproving old woman. All the other ghosts are really just trying to spend some time with the people they loved and lost.

However, they’re also hoping to hide from the ice men, because the ice men can only get to them when the storm is at it’s worst, but if they escape they’ll be able to live again. Obviously, this raises the issue of using someone else’s body, but although this is mentioned often it’s not really explored even when one ghost starts a sexual relationship that the body’s owner could not have agreed to.

There’s also quite a serious question of conflict between the ghost and the host. Obviously the living wouldn’t be willing to give up their lives, their friends and relatives wouldn’t be willing to accept the change and it’s hugely impractical, especially when there’s an old woman in a child’s body or a child in an adult’s body. On the other hand, for the ghosts to leave means returning to some kind of icy hell where they’ve spent the last 12 years, and no one wants to tell someone they loved that they have to go back to hell. However, not all the living relatives are told this, and the standard refrain is that the dead are dead and they can’t intrude on the living. A simple solution slapped on a complex problem. I understand the characters are often in desperate situations, but it still feels like this is handled too lightly. It reminds me a lot of Hitchers by Will McIntosh, but although I didn’t enjoy that book much either, I think it took a much more serious approach to this issue.

I also think it’s a pity that all the ghosts are so normal. Twelve years in hell with ice monsters and they’re still perfectly sane? It would have been much more interesting if they were fucked up and manipulative, and the living were torn between finding the people they’d lost, and finding out that those people are now monsters themselves. But no. The focus is the mundane reality of broken relationships and grieving people rather than the ways the supernatural world might affect that.

So once I realised I was not going to get what I’d been promised, I tried to just settle down with what I got – a story about ordinary folk in small-town America who have been through hard times. But I must admit, that’s not the kind of story I would ever pick up, and Christopher Golden is no Stephen King (who can make small-town stories interesting). I felt like I’d read about all these people and their relationships before in some other book. None of them are particularly memorable, and Golden writes them with a ton of boring, useless details, like the colour of their hair or their experience with microwave popcorn. Occasionally there’s something important, like the fact that Joe is haunted by the fact that he couldn’t save those two boys in the last snowstorm. Most of it, however, is just padding and does absolutely nothing to flesh out the characters.

I didn’t particularly like the overall feel of the book either. The blurb claims that it “updates the ghost story for the modern age”, but three’s nothing particularly modern about it. It feels like it could have been set at any time between now and 1960. There are references to contemporary media and technology, but none of it is important. Pictures of the ice men aren’t posted on Facebook or Twitter, no one compares facing monsters with gaming, no one tries to find out how other people around the world might have dealt with this (the ice men go wherever there is severely cold stormy weather). If you wanted to change this novel so it was set in the eighties, you could just alter the relevant details without making any difference to the plot or characters.

At the same time there are lots of things that make the book feel old-fashioned, like the use of the words “fisticuffs”, “fretting” and “flick” (as in “a flick with a young Denzel Washington”). Doug tells us how he “remained loyal to the [TV] station for as long as he could remember paying attention to the news” because the newsreaders are always “people who seemed real, like you’d bump into them on the street and they’d say hello”. Doug isn’t even an old man – he’s in his thirties or forties. I’ll admit that I might just be biased because I Iive online as much as I do in the real world, I was born in a city and I’ve never spent more than a day in a small town anywhere, so this book seems strangely quaint. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s definitely not “for the modern age” and the younger characters often seem out of touch.

So yeah, I was disappointed and mostly bored. I think anyone looking for a good horror novel is going to feel the same. You might enjoy it if you’re interested in the simple stories of ordinary folk in small-town America, with a dash of scary fantasy to make things a bit more interesting.

Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Delias ShadowTitle: Delia’s Shadow
Author: 
Jaime Lee Moyer
Series: 
Delia Martin
Published:
 
17 September 2013
Publisher: 
Tor Books
Genre:
 
historical fantasy, romance, mystery
Source: 
review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
2/10

The setting is San Francisco, 1915, and Delia Martin is returning from a a self-imposed exile in New York. For most of her life Delia has seen ghosts but after the great earthquake that rocked San Francisco in 1906, there were so many that she couldn’t handle seeing them all, and fled. For some unknown reason, she didn’t see ghosts in New York, until one started haunting her – a young woman who also came from San Francisco and was murdered there by a serial killer 30 years ago. The ghost – referred to as Shadow – wants Delia to help solve the mystery of her death and stop the killer, who is stalking San Francisco’s streets again.

Delia is rich and could have any house she wanted, but prefers to stay with her best friend Sadie. Coincidentally, Sadie is engaged to Sergeant Jack Fitzgerald, who is investigating the serial killer with his good friend and partner Lieutenant Gabe Ryan. And it just so happens that Gabe’s father worked on the first case thirty years ago, so Gabe immediately spotted the killer’s pattern and realised they are hunting the same man. Sadie tries a bit of matchmaking with Delia and Gabe, and they all go to an international fair together, which is fortunate because it gets Delia and the detectives together right away. When the men learn that Delia sees ghosts, they share their own experience of seeing a ghost, which miraculously happens to be the same ghost haunting Delia! Shadow has been causing Delia to have dreams of her encounter with the killer, which is advantageous, because it means Delia can prove it’s the same ghost right then and there.

Luckily for Delia, everyone believes her about the ghosts, and they go to see a psychic who just so happens to have a tent at the fair. It’s a good thing that the psychic – Isadora – is the real deal and knows everything she needs to know about helping Delia deal with Shadow and figure out what happened to her. But of course Shadow can’t just lead them straight to the killer because then this would be a short story, not a novel. So Delia, the detectives and Isadora try to find the killer through the information they get from his victims’ ghosts. In the meantime, Delia and Gabe start falling in love.

I didn’t mean to write the plot summary like that, but I lapsed into snark mode because Delia’s Shadow is just so contrived and silly. It falls horribly flat in every way – as a mystery, as a romance, and as a ghost story. It’s not unnerving, tense, engaging or charming. Despite the fact that two of the major characters are policeman in charge of the serial killer case, there’s almost no detective work, like following clues, trying to understand the killer’s motives, how that influences his choice of victim, predicting what he might do next, etc. None of the interesting stuff that draws readers to crime novels. At most, they figure out that he’s following an ancient Egyptian ritual, but this is of no importance whatsoever. Gabe and Jack rely almost entirely on Delia and Isadora to make any progress in the case. Their only real job seems to be sending other policeman to provide a 24-hour guard service for Sadie and Delia, Isadora, and even Gabe’s landlady (because the killer might attack people close to the detectives).

Equally absurd, is the fact that they have the resources for 24-hour protection. Isadora gets a police guard right after they meet her at fair, based on the fact that she also saw Shadow and understands the connection to the killer. How the fuck does Gabe justify this to his squad? “Please protect this psychic. She saw the ghost of a woman the killer murdered 30 years ago.”

Mind you, no one ever questions Gabe’s decisions, and he and Jack are portrayed as exemplary detectives. Nevermind that there’s a killer running loose while the best policemen take Delia and Sadie shopping.

And then there’s the romance. I don’t usually enjoy romance, and I didn’t realise it would be a major feature of this plot. Also, it’s SO BORING. Gabe is still in mourning after his pregnant wife’s death in the earthquake, and neither nor Delia are looking for romance. Still, they hit it off immediately and their relationship progresses very quickly and smoothly. That’s part of the problem – it’s just too easy. Another problem is that, because the serial killer poses a danger to all the major characters, the romance – and the story in general – involves an awful lot of fretting about everyone’s safety, how terrible it’d be to lose someone to the killer, how difficult it is for Delia to see ghosts, how brave everyone is being, how very very dreadful this whole situation is. Basically a whole lot of mundane thoughts that people in this situation would naturally think about, but that don’t make for thrilling reading. A better author would have made it succinct but forceful. This is just a stream of blah blah blah.

And it’s all very traditional too. The men go out to investigate (not that they achieve anything), and make it their responsibility to protect the women. The women mostly stay at home wringing their hands, and only go out when escorted by men. Whenever Delia makes a major effort to get useful information from the ghosts, Gabe is there to hold her hand and catch her in case she swoons (which she often does).

No shortage of female stereotypes here. Sadie is a collection of them – she’s charm incarnate, likes matchmaking, and has a reputation as a gossip, but is a loving, caring person at heart. She makes little contribution to the story, except to connect everyone who does (Jack, Gabe, Delia and Isadora, who is also a friend of hers), and to be a perpetual damsel in distress

Delia annoyed the crap out of me with all her trembling, crying and worrying. And let’s not forget Annie, the black housekeeper, who is not just a female but a racial stereotype as well. Annie is happiest when she has people to feed, you can immediately tell she’s black because of her sentence structure, she sings hymns while working in the kitchen, has a forceful but caring personality (no one would dare refuse a plate of her pancakes!), and is full of wisdom.

Not that the male characters are any less cliche. Jack and Gabe are sturdy old-fashioned men, brave and strong and kind, worrying about their women and often sharing a chuckle over how smart and charming the girls are. Our villain is the very simplistic evil psychopath who kills people because of something that happened in his childhood.

The climax to this tedious story is predictable and surprisingly short. The killer only appears on the page for about five seconds. You get the sense that he was almost a sideshow, or an excuse for the drama and romance that characterises the story.

Honestly, this book got progressively worse as I read, and it continued to worsen the more I thought about it. Besides all the issues I’ve discussed, it’s riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. And it has so much padding. Like descriptions of clothing and decor that are probably meant to build the historical setting, but which are totally irrelevant and will be forgotten the moment after you’ve read them. Or all the affection, concern, random observations and other useless blathering that comes out of the characters’ mouths. The author wastes words, and I felt like I wasted my time reading them.

Hitchers by Will McIntosh

Hitchers_Press_rv01.inddTitle: Hitchers
Author: Will McIntosh
Published: 2 October 2012
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 5/10

Finn Darby’s wife and grandfather died on the same day. While Finn misses his beloved Lorena, he doesn’t really miss his grandfather Tom – a tight-fisted, alcoholic, racist, abusive old bastard. Tom Darby created Toy Shop, a long-running newspaper comic strip, and refused to ever let Finn – an aspiring cartoonist – have anything to do with it.

But Finn went against his grandfather’s dying demand, resurrected the strip, updating it for a modern audience, creating new characters and selling merchandising rights. It’s more successful than ever. Most of the money goes to his Finn’s long-suffering grandmother but Finn has become fairly wealthy too.

Then, after a terrorist attack kills half a million people in Atlanta, Finn starts blurting out things in a strange, disturbing voice that he can’t control. Eventually he realises that his grandfather is speaking through him, and that the terrorist attack has somehow allowed the dead to return by inhabiting the bodies of the living. At first they can only blurt random words and phrases, but it’s not long before the hitchers’ influence begins to grow. Finn’s grandfather wants Toy Shop back, but it’s not all bad. Finn quickly realises that he can contact his dead wife, and he finds her in the body of a waitress named Summer.

Together with Summer and an ageing British rocker named Mick Mercury (a combination of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, I assume), Finn tries to understand the hitchers and the afterlife they come from. It looks like they’re here to stay, but can they be allowed to?

Hitchers is a quick, light read, but even if that’s what you’re looking for, you might not appreciate it in this book, especially if the ideas in the plot are what intrigued you. On the one hand, the story incorporates a lot of serious ideas and situations, but it’s mostly handled in a superficial and sometimes amateurish way that wastes the premise. Also, it features Toy Shop cartoons that all suck.

Let’s take the existence of hitchers, to start with. They’re all people who either really, really didn’t want to be dead or have unfinished business. Finn’s grandfather was vicious, Lorena incredibly vivacious, and Mick’s hitcher has… actual unfinished business. It’s pretty boring, but the ghosts’ existence is more important to the plot than their reasons for hanging around, so fine. What bugged me more was that everything the characters need to understand about the ghosts and the afterlife come from one book. Summer is a hippy who just so happens to have this book – a tome by an Indian mystic named J. Krishnapuma. And Krishnapuma is spot-on about everything. It’s so very lucky for everyone in the kind of plot device that should be reserved for children’s adventure stories.

The situations that the hitchers create are much more serious though, and McIntosh plays around with some interesting and disturbing ideas. The ghosts are basically always present in the bodies they inhabit. It’s like looking out silently through someone’s eyes. After a while, instead of just blurting out a few words, they take full possession of the body. Neither the ghost nor its host can control when the ghost speaks, when it takes over the body, or for how long. During possession, the body’s owner becomes the viewer.

The issues of privacy and control are the most obvious ones here, and Finn’s situation is particularly scary because his grandfather is a thoroughly hateful bastard. Finn’s relationship with Lorena raises a different set of disturbing problems.

Of course, Finn can only speak to Lorena through someone else’s body. A body that Lorena is involuntarily hijacking. Finn and Summer become friends, so Summer is at least understanding and co-operative when it comes to giving Finn a chance to spend time with his wife, but this quickly becomes far more complicated. For example, when Lorena takes over Summer’s body, they kiss and touch in physically intimate ways that Summer hasn’t consented to but experiences because she’s still inside her body. Then, Finn finds himself increasingly attracted to Summer, which Lorena picks up on because she’s watching all the time.

It’s a weird love triangle with two bodies and three people (four, counting Finn’s grandfather, although he doesn’t care about the romance), but it’s one of the issues that I think was handled too lightly. Yes, the characters agonise over it, but it feels a bit superficial. At the end, the whole thing is dealt with in a way that I found far too easy and dismissive.

The plot as a whole suffers from a similar problem. For a story featuring a terrorist attack that kills half a million people, uncontrolled possession of the living by the dead, some very bleak depictions of the afterlife, and personal struggles to deal with grief, Hitchers is just too relaxed and simplistic even when it’s supposed to be serious.

The Krishnapuma book that explains everything the main characters need to know about the hitchers and the afterlife is one example of this. Finn’s grandfather is another – technically Finn got rich by stealing his work, but Tom is such a vile person that you could never muddy the moral waters by taking his side. McIntosh also avoids the most interesting complexities of hitcher possession. There’s only one glimpse of a cross-gender hitcher. Except for Tom enjoying having Finn’s young, healthy body, there’s nothing about the experience of having a body notably different from your original one (male/female, child/adult, able/disabled, black/white, etc.). And although Finn, Mick and Summer are always listening to news reports about the hitchers, there’s no mention of anyone seeking out their loved ones as Finn has. This is the best thing about the hitchers, but also the most morally conflictual because of the way it affects relationships. Why then, is this most interesting of plot points restricted to Finn, Lorena and Summer?

In terms of the broader social effects of the terrorist attack and the hitchers, there’s one scene that stands out for me as the book’s failure to deal with difficult problems. After a night out, Finn and Summer are attacked and nearly murdered by religious fanatics who believe that people with hitchers are evil. Afterwards, this problem disappears from the plot, and Finn, Mick and Summer carry on as usual, as if there weren’t psychos trying to murder them in the streets.

At the end, the main plot is resolved far too quickly and conveniently, giving the impression that the author had just gotten tired of the whole thing. And honestly, it doesn’t feel like a story that’s worth your time. So much weight has been lifted from it that you feel like you’re getting something lesser than it should be. Easy reads are great, but not when it feels like an easy way out.

Review of The Cutting Room by Mary Watson

Cutting Room_2Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Mary Watson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: April 2013
Genre: psychological thriller
Source: Penguin Books SA
Rating: 8/10

Writing a plot summary for The Cutting Room is difficult – the novel doesn’t follow the chronology of its events. Putting them in chronological order for a plot summary feels disingenuous, because that’s not a proper reflection of how the novel feels to me. But all summaries and reviews are inaccurate in some way; keeping that in mind I might as well go ahead.

Lucinda is a cutter. She doesn’t cut herself with blades – she cuts and edits film – but the sense of menace and the hint at harm and self-harm are not to be ignored. For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared. The first time he went to do ‘research’, and left without saying a word to her, only sending an sms to say that he was ok. This time, Lucinda suspects that Amir has actually left her for good, although she has no way of knowing for sure because he hasn’t communicated with her at all. Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly has gone wrong. Is it her fault, or is it something else?

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with work, dinner parties, and nights with trendy, pretty boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town. Her nosy, paranoid neighbour keeps worrying about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape. Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda joins an old friend on his latest project – a documentary about a supposedly haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

As I mentioned, the actual story isn’t as linear as this plot summary. To read it is not so much to read a story in the traditional sense but to view a collage of characters, relationships and themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty. When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. At times the narrative goes back even further, to Lucinda’s childhood. The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

In this way, this novel has multiple facets. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It’s depicts her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town, a mixing pot of cultures and histories but also a “Janus-faced city” (17) with its combination of wealth and poverty. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering in the city of Cape Town, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

We never learn when the first scene of the novel takes place, but it sets the tone for what follows. In it, Lucinda sees a burglar on the wall between her house and her neighbour’s. He’s holding a DVD player and a brick. She calls out to him; he makes as if to throw the brick at her, but it’s just an act of mockery and he runs away laughing. In real time this scene would last about thirty seconds, but it takes up several pages as we’re plunged into Lucinda’s interior world. Some of her thoughts are random and a bit silly – she’s impressed that this man jumped onto this high, narrow wall and wonders how criminals train to master their craft; she compares her stereotypically sinister image of criminals with the ordinary person before her; she thinks of how he looks like the Oros man with his big belly and orange T-shirt; she thinks about how much she hates the Oros man “with that bloated rubber dominatrix suit. That sinister smile. His round dead eyes” (3). When her mind focuses on the reality of the situation, she is scared but also annoyed – this man intruded on her Sunday morning and now she’s a witness to his crime. She has been infected by someone else’s problem. It reminds her of a similar, haunting experience as a child. She is, to an extent, in danger, but the burglar uses her vulnerability to humiliate her.

What comes across here are the themes of crime and intrusion, the psychological narrative style in which the story is related, and a brief but illuminating idea of who Lucinda is as a person. The way you can be shamed by what other people’s sins. This kind of detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room a relatively dense, demanding read, but also a rewarding one. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details with which she weaves her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. In some ways she’s similar to me – a coloured woman from Cape Town with her fair share of insecurities. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold at times, it could be because she prides herself on being able to be “aloof and unemotional”. When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. I particularly like this anecdote about her cravings for KFC and what it says about her character:

 Lucinda, then approaching thirty, wanted to be stylishly grown-up; she wanted to be sophisticatedly disaffected. The only thing was that every now and then she craved Kentucky Fried with the same intensity that Rapunzel’s mother wanted those radishes in the witch’s garden. She needed the deep grease and she wanted to lick the small bones clean. But she hated going down into the KFC wearing her little boutique dresses – the smell of refried oil absorbed into the expensive fabric and her hair. She felt stared at. Sturvy. So she would slip into an old tracksuit and head down to the Main Road as if in disguise. It became a secret; it just didn’t fit in with the deli and boutique culture she was working so hard at. (41)

“Sturvy”, by the way, is coloured Cape Town slang for “snooty” and its one of the scatterings of slang that Watson has woven into her depiction of the city. She doesn’t explain it, which might be a bit confusing for international readers, but which I thought was great, as explanations tend to distance you from the culture.

Anyway. Lucinda struggles with being alone, not only because Amir has disappeared but because she simply doesn’t know what to do with her time at home. Her work has made her hopelessly impatient:

Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead, it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second. (42)

She repeats those small moments by reliving happy memories of her relationship with Amir, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates the novel from dreary domestic drama to psychological thriller. There are countless details and stories that involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present. It’s not something I can properly articulate in the space of a review – the effect is subtle and cumulative, so a few quotes won’t really convey the unsettling tone of the whole.

It’s interesting to note though, that crime isn’t the primary source of menace. Yes, the novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but it doesn’t resort to the relatively simplistic depiction of fearful citizens preyed upon by vile criminals. Rather, crime is one aspect of a more complex consideration of fear in general.

One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

Almost as scary as rape itself is the idea that a child would immediately think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the kind of society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in. But the incident quickly becomes very different: when the woman emerges it’s revealed that she’s screaming for hep for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare at the woman in shock, until she runs off looking for someone more capable. Then the two girls just walk on, and Cat immediately starts talking about their library books. Lucinda is more disturbed – was there really a drowning man? Has it got anything to do with the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei? She never finds out what really happened and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: ” While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than any incidents of crime. They are born of intimate, unsettling secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories of the house in Heuwelhoek. They raise more questions than they answer, but they get under your skin. As a genre fan I was hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel. I wasn’t unhappy with what she did, I just wanted more of it, with a more satisfying resolution.

But the book is primarily and Lucinda’s relationship with Amir and the mystery of his disappearance. This is probably not a good choice if you’re looking for sheer story – the book is packed with stories within stories, but the main arc of narrative moves quite slowly and isn’t especially exciting. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

I was captivated, but if I have an any complaints, it’s that yes, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective book rather than a typically fast-paced thriller. The challenge was to balance reflection and action. For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases sort of action but with gripping stories and intriguing encounters. Nevertheless, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Niggling aside – The Cutting Room is good. Very good. It’s one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Up for Review: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

I don’t celebrate Halloween, although it’s become an increasingly popular party day in South Africa over the past couple of years. We don’t bother with any of the related traditions like pumpkin-carving or trick-or-treating, and it’s not exactly a family holiday, since (in my experience anyway) kids aren’t typically involved. Mostly, it’s just a good excuse for a few people to throw costume parties and host events like the South African Horrorfest.

Here in Ethiopia, I doubt many people know about the holiday, except for some of the expats and the Ethiopians who have lived in the states (a surprisingly large community). However, I have found myself invited to an American birthday/Halloween party, so I need to think of a costume. Preferably something that I can put together using the clothes in my wardrobe, stuff around the house, and maybe a prop that’d be easy to find in the shops, which aren’t very well stocked. Any ideas?

Now would also be a good time to read Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye, a Halloween release from Penguin Books. I love the title and the creepy cover. Also, kids are scary.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye (Penguin Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

This Halloween, Penguin Books is excited to publish Stefan Kiesbye’s spooky new novel YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE about a haunted German village and the children who are the guardians of its secrets.

 

Shirley Jackson meets The Twilight Zone in this literary novel of supernatural horror about a village called Hemmersmoor, a place untouched by time and shrouded in superstition.  YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, YOUR CHILDREN ALL GONE is told from the point of view of its children (Christian, Martin, Linde, and Anke) who grow up in a claustrophobic world of ancient superstitions, pagan rituals and wartime secrets.  The town’s main buildings are its grand manor house whose occupants despise the villagers, the small pub whose regulars speak of ghosts, and the old mill no one dares to mention.  This is where the four young friends come of age, in an atmosphere thick with fear and suspicion.  All too soon, their innocent games bring them face-to-face with the village’s darkest secrets – which will never let them go.

 

This eerily dispassionate, astonishingly assured novel is evocative of Stephen King’s classic short story “Children of the Corn” and infused with the spirit of the Brothers Grimm.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was published on 25 September by Penguin Books.

Links:
The novel on the publisher’s website
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About the author:
Stefan Kiesbye has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Born on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, he studied in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Portales, New Mexico where he teaches creative writing at Eastern New Mexico University and is the arts editor of Absinthe: New European Writing.  His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his first book Next Door Lived a Girl won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award and was praised by Peter Ho Davies as “utterly gripping,” by Charles Baxter as “both laconic and feverish,” and by Robert Olmstead as “maddeningly powerful.” – NetGalley

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Review of Ghost Music by Graham Masterton

Title: Ghost Music
Author:  
Graham Masterton
Published: First published 1 March 2009; this edition published 28 November 2011
Publisher: Dorchester Publishing
Genre: horror, mystery, ghost story
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 5/10

Gideon Lake is a composer of advertising jingles and the occasional film score. It’s not quite as prestigious as the connotations you generally get from the word “composer”, but his work has been very lucrative and he’s just moved into a swanky new apartment. When he meets his neighbour Kate they’re instantly drawn to each other and waste no time in starting an affair, despite the fact that Kate’s extremely temperamental husband Victor owns the apartment below Gideon’s.

Kate is suspiciously keen on Gideon – soon after their first time in the sack, she invites him on a trip to Stockholm, where they’ll be staying with Kate’s friends. It’s the first of three such trips: each time the couple stays with a family in a beautiful home, but none of them turn out to be the romantic getaways Gideon expects. When he’s around Kate’s friends and their children, he sees terrible visions of them dead, dying or tortured, or he has encounters with them that are later revealed to be impossible. Kate, however, isn’t the least bit fazed when he tells her what he sees; in fact, she seems to have expected it. But why does she want him to see this? And what do all these people want from Gideon?

For the most part, I found Ghost Music to be an enjoyable, very creepy read that I got through pretty quickly. Admittedly, it’s a bit conventional. Gideon is of the familiar ‘I see dead people’ persuasion. Because of his creative nature, he is perceptive enough to tune into people’s “resonance”: “What they were, what they wanted to be. What they are now”. Essentially this means he can see ghosts, before, after and during their deaths, and being close to Gideon allows ghosts to take their old, corporeal forms. Gideon’s visions are not subject to a linear timeline, so he frequently sees someone dead or dying in one moment, and then healthy and alive soon after. Naturally he finds it incredibly distressing and disorientating, but Kate is usually there to soothe him and reassure him that she believes him. A little odd, no? Normally the peripheral characters won’t believe in any of the paranormal occurrences until they experience one for themselves, so Kate’s reaction is rather suspicious.

However, you will soon notice that Gideon is that kind of character who is supposedly intelligent, but often terribly, conveniently stupid when it comes to figuring out things that are obvious to the reader, asking glaring questions, or getting important information that’s easy to find. This sort of contrivance is a cheap tactic for maintaining tension and mystery within the narrative, because it would all be over a lot faster if the protagonist wasn’t so bloody selective about using his brain. It’s pretty damn obvious, for example, that Kate is not your average woman, and it’s not just her tendency to buy Gideon expensive tickets to Europe for romantic getaways that turn into nightmares. I can only assume that Gideon doesn’t want to disrupt his suddenly flourishing sex life by thinking too hard about Kate’s oddities.

Gideon does at least demand to know what’s up with all the horrible visions but – in another contrivance – it’s apparently against the ‘rules’ for Kate to tell him anything. He has to see everything for himself and then figure it out on his own. Thanks to the conventions of horror stories and constant hints and foreshadowing in the novel, you can enjoy the smug sense of being smarter and better-informed than the main character. The bloody title is “Ghost Music” so you know that his weird visions are of dead people. But of course you still need him to find out what exactly happened to the ghosts and why.

Despite it being conventional and contrived, I was having quite a good time reading the novel. Conventions after all, include the characteristics that define a genre, and although stories that avoid or subvert conventions tend to be more exciting, the ones that stick to tradition make use of the features that drew you to the genre in the first place. I love ghost stories and dark secrets, which perhaps makes me easy to please in this case, or at least more likely to ignore the flaws. Whatever the reason, I was liking the book, and I couldn’t wait to learn the backstory.

The resolution of the mystery, however, is where Masterton completely and utterly cocks it all up.

The creepiness and tense intrigue I enjoyed was, sadly, matched by my disappointment when all is revealed. It manages to be both mundane and ludicrous. This is something I want to discuss in more detail, but I can’t do that without numerous spoilers. For those who want to read the novel, you can skip to the end of the review. For those who want to find out exactly why this book let me down, I’ve written that section in white, so highlight it to read.

It was Victor, Kate’s jackass of a husband who killed and tortured the people whose ghosts Gideon saw. Victor didn’t do the dirty deeds himself; he has a goon named Jack Friendly who specialises in that sort of thing. The three families owned extremely valuable properties, and Victor blackmailed the fathers into giving him the properties and then made a fortune as some kind of exclusive realtor.

Why and how? Well, Victor and Kate had a baby boy with a weak heart. The fathers of the three families ran some kind of organ-transplant company, and Victor paid them three million dollars to get a new heart for his baby, a boy who was destined to continue Victor’s great family legacy, blah blah blah. But the baby died anyway, and the Victor had bankrupted himself paying for the heart, so he took his revenge on the three men and their families. And took their properties too. And had Kate’s parents murdered because they wouldn’t pay for a second heart. And then had Kate murdered (yes, she’s a ghost too) because she had told her parents not to pay for a second heart, convinced that God or fate had meant for the baby to die. Having a second baby was apparently out of the question, because Victor figured it would just have the same genetic defect. So he got mad and then got Jack Friendly to drown young girls and set people alight.

I think this is totally fucked up, but in a stupid way. Victor’s reaction to his son’s death is so outrageously over-the-top that it feels like another contrivance, as does his refusal to try for another child.

But more importantly, I felt that the story focussed on the wrong people. You might be interested to know that the fathers of the three families that Victor killed were running a company that massacred people in poor African villages to harvest and sell their organs. You find this out in an almost blasé manner – oh by the way, these three guys were super-evil capitalist monsters. What Victor and Jack did to them and their families was undoubtedly horrible, but in light of the organ harvesting, the villains look more like avenging forces for the hundreds of silent poor. Masterton almost completely glosses over the fact that hundreds of nameless Africans were butchered for the organs, and Kate seems to think that Victor was somehow worse than them for buying one of the organs to save his dying baby instead of just letting it die as God/fate intended. At best there’s a moment when Kate holds up the ghost of a ravaged Nigerian baby whose heart, eyes, etc. have been removed. But Kate is still speaking on their behalf, and she does it only to implicate Victor, not the people responsible for the Nigerian baby’s death. The three men who ran the company are portrayed almost entirely as the victims of Victor’s greed and cruelty, and not as the perpetrators of even more horrifying greed and cruelty. Does anyone else find the sense of justice here wildly unbalanced?

Another question – if Kate and the other ghosts can make an effort to get revenge on Victor, why couldn’t all th­e African ghosts take revenge on the people who murdered them for profit? There’s a potential answer to this, but again, it feels contrived. A rule for the dead is that they aren’t allowed to accuse the living, which is why a creative man like Gideon is needed to see the ghosts, find out what happened to them, and seek justice on their behalf. I guess the African ghosts couldn’t find anyone. Another one of the contrived rules is that every person has 3 years as a ghost before they move on. It’s up to them to decide what to do with that time, so maybe the African ghosts just didn’t bother.

I tried to imagine a more favourable interpretation – perhaps the real horror is in the irony that Victor and Jack are considered to be the villains while the men who are even more monstrous come off as their poor victims. But this is a stretch; the novel doesn’t support that reading at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve enjoyed a mystery only to be disappointed when it’s solved. For most of the book I thought I’d be giving it 7/10. Once I’d finished I was debating how much the ending lowered the rating. I’m starting to wonder whether authors feel like all the good reveals have already been used and are scraping the bottom of the barrel in the assumption that being original will make up for being crap. Personally, I’d rather hear an old story. After all, the conventional stuff was working for me for most of the novel.

 

Buy Ghost Music at The Book Depository