Gina Wohlsdorf (www.ginawohlsdorf.com)
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (algonquin.com)
The grand opening of Manderley Resort, an eyesore on the Santa Barbara Beach, is rapidly approaching. Hotel manager Tessa and her team of chefs, cleaners, and restaurant managers are preparing the hotel and the ballroom for the celebratory gala, while locked away on the impenetrable top floor, the security team watches everything through the secret and not-so-secret cameras that cover the vast majority of the hotel, including the guest rooms. But tonight, the staff will have more to deal with than the displeasure of Charles Destin, the hotel’s owner; there’s a killer in the hotel, a man in a mask who has already started killing, and who won’t stop until Manderley Resort contains nothing but corpses.
If you have ever watched and enjoyed a slasher film by the likes of John Carpenter, or Wes Craven, or Dario Argento, or any of the hundreds of other directors who practiced the art during the 70s and 80s, then Gina Wohlsdorf’s debut novel, Security, is the book for you. If you’ve watched one of those films and been turned off by the blood and gore, then it might also be the book for you since, let’s face it, it’s easier to imagine the blood than see it splattered across the screen.
The story starts slowly, introducing us to the main players. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that we’re watching the events unfold through the eyes of the head of security, who sees everything on his myriad monitors, when Tessa breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader:
She turns around in the reception driveway, looks directly into Camera 3, and says, “You know how Charles is. Don’t take it personally.”
At this point, much about Wohlsdorf’s strange narrative style begins to make sense: we are watching the events unfold through the cameras, and through the eyes of the nameless security chief locked away on the top floor. The flow from one character’s point of view to another’s – in which the author breaks all conventions – is down to his attention shifting from monitor to monitor. Shortly afterwards, the we find the first instance page splitting briefly into two columns, and we watch events fold in parallel through the lenses of two different cameras, before his attention is once again consumed by a single camera. This literary equivalent of the split-screen works very well, and serves to ratchet up the tension, particularly towards the story’s climax.
Why, we are forced to ask ourselves, if the chief of security can see the man he has dubbed “the Killer”, can see his terrible crimes, and the trail of blood he leaves as he moves around the hotel, why doesn’t he do anything about it? Is he complicit? Is his lair so well-protected that it makes more sense to stay put and hope for the Killer to finish his work and disappear into the night? It’s a question that plagues us throughout the book, and Wohlsdorf keeps us guessing, tell-tale signs in the narrator’s language forcing us to reconsider one way or the other as the story progresses.
At the centre of the story is Tessa herself, and her foster brother Brian, a man she has loved since childhood and who has visited Manderley Resort on this auspicious night to clear the air between them. It is, at heart, a love story, and the narrator’s obvious jealousy of the developing relationship does little to allay our fears that he is somehow involved in the blood spilled by the Killer. The characters all have their own secrets, they’re all damaged in some way, from the restaurant managers whose marriage is on the rocks, to the cleaner with an unhealthy (though well-deserved) dislike for men, from the ice queen Tessa to the high-strung chef whose reputation rests on the strength of his cherry coulis.
Security is like nothing you’ve ever read before, despite the similarities to everything you’ve ever seen in the slasher subgenre. Wohlsdorf’s writing style is unique, straight and to the point, wonderfully engaging and, while not quite as telegraphic as the likes of Ellroy, its short, sharp sentences pull the reader in and take us gleefully through this macabre evening of love and violence. The homages to the horror genre come thick and fast, from Carpenter’s Halloween (“It’s the same mask from the Halloween movies, the ones with Jamie Lee Curtis.”), to Daphne du Maurier, Stephen King (some of the action takes place in Room 1408, which is actually on the thirteenth floor, since no numbered thirteenth floor exists) and Ira Levin (Sliver, anyone?). The story, very cinematic in style due, in part, to the nature of how we view it, contains all the suspense and violence we expect from a slasher, all the stupid things the characters in such films inevitably do (“don’t go in there,” you’ll find yourself yelling at one character or another, or “why are you splitting up?”) and serves it up with a healthy dose of black humour that infuses every word.
One of this year’s gems, Security is one of the finest horror novels to be produced in quite a while. Slick, clever and with a clear, engaging voice it should put author Gina Wohlsdorf firmly on the map, alongside some of finest young writers working in the genre today: Lebbon, Keene, Littlewood, Langan. It’s a book that cries out for a second read, if only to plug the inevitable gap until the author’s second novel, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys intelligently-written horror fiction. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.