Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Haunting, by Alex Bell

Firstly, I am a massive fan of the Red Eye series, and Horror generally. Though I will attest that the thing that is *most scary* is cheap jump scares that go MLLLURH!! At you and books can’t really do that. They have to use mere words to create atmosphere and suspense, and actual craft.

So. The Haunting. Overall, I very much enjoyed it. I was compelled by it, unnerved by it. I loved the setting and the idea of a Cornish Inn built from the salvaged timber of a wrecked ship, an unusual, grotesque building housing its own secrets and its own misery, menacing the living with tricks and manipulation. 

The book tells the story of Emma, returning to Cornwall with her assistance dog Bailey to visit her dying nan. Emma had an accident at the Waterwitch when she was 7 that left her in a wheelchair, and her family relocated shortly after, cutting Nan out of their lives. Poor Nan. She was a bit Ex MachiNan, as she literally just exists to induce the plot- bless her.  Emma is reunited, by accident, with her childhood BFF Jem and his little sister Shell, the witnesses to her accident. They seem to have fallen on hard times in her absence and are noticeably disheveled and haunted looking. Emma is shocked to discover that Shell’s childhood kooks are alive and well despite her nopw being in her mid-teens. She believes herself to be a Witch and plagued by flocks of birds that only she can see. Jem attributes this behaviour to trauma following their mother’s suicide and their troubled home life. Jem, bless his heart, does quite a lot of attributing odd things to Perfectly Reasonable Occurrences. He would have made an excellent guard in Skyrim.

Emma, on half term for the week, decides to move into the Waterwitch to keep Shell company, convinced that isolation and wandering imaginations are mostly responsible for her distress. Shell is adamant that the drowned sailors still haunt the Waterwitch, along with the ship’s two-timing captain, a relative of Shell and Jem, and a haggard, furious witch that craves revenge on the man that wronged her. I loved the mystery woven into the story, the history and secrets that are gradually unraveled by Shell and Emma as they investigate this Waterwitch’s history at various witchcraft museums in Cornwall. Some of the flashback scenes are pretty horrific and gruesome. I loved that once Shell knew the full story, she was in total sympathy with the victim, afraid, sure, but also righteously angry and determined to make things right.

Emma was an interesting character- she was very aware of how people see her and her dog and chair, and deliberately ups the sass levels to go against expectations. I liked how independent she was and how determined to do what she felt was the right thing. I really liked the characters of Jem and Shell, their traumatic home life commands sympathy from the reader. Their father, the one remaining parent, is violent and abusive towards his children, children he resents and despises. There are some heart-breaking sections where Jem wishes that his drunken, abusive father had always and consistently been cruel, as the occasional moments of goodness from him made him harder to hate. Shell talks about how horrific it is to be mortally afraid of someone you love. It’s very much a subplot, but worth noting. I suppose Shell’s damagedness makes it harder to determine if the things she sees are real or not, though they seem consistently real to her.

Some of my frustrations when reading this book were probably necessary. The Horror genre, particularly supernatural horror, depends on a quantity of characters being skeptical. They need to find rational explanations to spooky goings on. We, the reader, need to vocally curse them for refusing to believe things they are seeing with their own eyes- it’s all part of the plan. There is definitely some of that going on with Emma and Jem, who put the Waterwitch’s unusual goings on down to warped, old wood, overactive imaginations and the wind. Shell, on the other hand, knows exactly what the deal is, but is powerless to get anyone to believe her.

I liked that there was no romance, that the plot was allowed to focus on friendship and family and history. I loved the atmospheric setting of the novel, the menacing, grotesque Inn was an incredibly memorable place that conjured up mental comparisons with Jamaica Inn and Smuggler’s Cott and all those wonky, poky buildings all over Britain that defy physics by standing upright at all, let alone remaining vertical for 400 years.

I loved that the book's main character was a person with a disability, it is something that is less visible that it should in fiction- also, I liked that moving on from the accident and adjusting to a new normal was not the crux of the plot, merely an ongoing process, which seemed realistic. My only criticism of the whole novel was that I felt the author was a bit too hung up on Emma being a wheelchair user, something that became particularly evident during Emma’s narrated sections. There were many, many unnecessary reminders that Emma was in a wheelchair that became a bit noticeable and started to bug me every time a narrator needlessly referred to it. Like, it's fine to just go across a room , or move across, no need to specify 'wheeled' every time. And yes, noting another old building's lack of accessible entrance is understandable, but it would be followed by a reminder of the wheelchair in many instances.

Aside from the one small niggle, I absolutely loved it- the pace was great, the characters were memorable and relatable, the atmosphere and the threat were consistent and menacing, and the plot's strands were gathered up well. I think I'll go for Dark Room next, and long may the Red Eye series continue to produce smart, pacy thrillers that leave no corner of the irrational human brain unexplored when it comes to what scares us.

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