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haunted house

TRAVELERS REST by Keith Lee Morris

Travelers Rest TRAVELERS REST

Keith Lee Morris

Weidenfeld & Nicolson (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

On the long drive from Seattle to South Carolina, the Addison family – Tonio and Julia, their son Dewey and Tonio’s brother, Robbie – are forced off the highway by a massive snowstorm and find themselves in the small town of Good Night, Idaho. Taking a room in the town’s only hotel, the Travelers Rest, they settle down to wait. One by one, they separate from the group and find themselves reliving the same nightmare day after day, catching glimpses of each other but never quite able to regroup. As past and present merge, the family learns of Good Night’s mining-town origins, and discovers that they’re not the first people to fall foul of the Travelers Rest’s questionable hospitality. With time running out, it is up to the individual family members to break the cycle and make a bid for freedom.

As the novel opens, Morris alternates the narrative – a trick that continues throughout the novel – to show us the dynamics of this family: Tonio is taking younger brother Robbie back to South Carolina as part of a court-ordered rehabilitation program, so there is already tension between the brothers; Julia and Robbie’s relationship, although not necessarily sexual in nature, is much stronger than that between the brothers, or even that between husband and wife; and ten-year-old Dewey, who seems much wiser than his years, can feel – if not understand – all of the tension around him. Things begin to fall apart almost immediately upon their arrival in Good Night, as Robbie disappears in the middle of the night, heading for the town’s watering hole, across the quiet main street.

From there, each family member becomes separated from the others, and each finds themselves in a different version of reality, reliving the same day over and over as the snow continues to fall. Essentially a haunted house tale, Travelers Rest follows in the footsteps of The Haunting of Hill House, Morris opting for a quiet, unsettling sense of horror that grows on the reader as the story progresses, rather than an all-out attack on the senses. The strength of Morris’ story-telling lies in his characterisations – this is very much a character-driven piece – not only of the Addison family, but of the denizens of Good Night whose paths they cross: Hugh and Lorraine, who own the town’s diner, and from whom we get much of the backstory, as they explain to Dewey the town’s “hunger”, and the souvenirs that it likes to keep; Stephanie, Hugh’s sister, who guides Robbie through these extraordinary events; and the smarmy and officious Mr A. Tiffany, proprietor of the Travelers Rest.

The tension is palpable throughout the story: without introducing a ticking clock, Morris still manages to impose a sense of deadline on the reader, a feeling that time is running out. The seemingly endless snow gives the book a claustrophobic feel, yet we understand from early on that it’s not the reason the Addisons are here, or that they have stayed so long.

“I know it sounds weird,” Hugh said, “but people get drawn here. It has a magnetic quality.”

Morris’ writing brings with it a certain immediacy, an intensity that draws the reader in and forces them to be part of the world he has created. The hotel affects different people in different ways; we see each of these different worlds through the eyes of the sufferers, and it’s clear that for many, escape is not something for which they strive.

Reminiscent of King’s Desperation and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Keith Lee Morris’ latest novel – the first to be published in the UK – is an intense and gripping story that succeeds in its aim to unsettle the reader, to turn what we think we know on its head and leave us stranded with the Addison family in the strange little town of Good Night, Idaho. Wonderful writing and excellent characterisation combine to keep the story very much grounded in reality, despite the unnerving and unusual sights we will see during our stay in the Travelers Rest. A fine new voice in horror fiction, Keith Lee Morris shows an impressive talent and a deep understanding of his chosen genre. I’m interested to see where his talents take him next; in the meantime, Travelers Rest should be on your list of books to read this year.

HORRORSTÖR by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor_final_300dpi HORRORSTÖR

Grady Hendrix (www.gradyhendrix.com)

Quirk Books (www.quirkbooks.com)

US$14.95

It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the other end.

The Cleveland, Ohio Orsk store has been losing money since it opened, sales a fraction of those in the furniture giant’s other stores, and staff are coming in to work every morning to broken, damaged and soiled products on the shop floor. The day before a consultancy team are due from Head Office, the store’s deputy manager, Basil, recruits Amy and Ruth Anne to do a special overnight shift, a security measure to ensure that nothing is amiss when the consultants arrive. It isn’t long before strange things start happening – graffiti appearing on the walls of the women’s bathroom, strange noises on the shop floor and a distinctly unpleasant smell pervading the whole building – and before the night is out, there will be worse horrors to come and this small group will learn what it truly means to be stuck in a dead end job.

You will be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Grady Hendrix’s exceptional novel is an Ikea catalogue (the splendid front cover gives way to a map of the store, and a home delivery order form before the story begins). Nor is it a zombie novel, despite the opening sentence, above. The novel’s setting is an Ikea rip-off, “the all-American furniture superstore in Scandanavian drag”, and anyone who has ever set foot inside one of Swedish colossus’s shops will recognise it instantly, from the guided shopping experience (“the Bright and Shining Path”), to the Market Floor and the self-service warehouse. Hendrix’s attention to detail is second-to-none here, and he has even gone as far as naming his own product lines (some, admittedly, with questionable names: the Tossurs treamill desk; Balsak candles; Magog bunk beds).

It’s a difficult book to categorise: part satire on modern working life – and, indeed, modern shopping life – part turn-on-all-the-lights horror, Hendrix never lets the reader get too comfortable with one emotion or the other, flitting from laugh-out-loud (really!) to spine-chilling horror with an ease that is difficult not to admire, even as you’re looking over your shoulder to make sure that wasn’t someone breathing on your neck. The unique narrative style helps to keep the reader engaged in what might, in the hands of a less humorous author, have been a sustained and bleak journey into madness with no redeeming features.

The bulk of Horrorstör covers a relatively short period of time – the fateful overnight shift – so the small cast, and the fact that we see everything exclusively through the eyes of Amy, help to make it a more intimate, engaging read. While the plot might sound like something from a second-rate teen slasher flick, this is far from the cast you might expect in such a film: Basil, a man who has worked his way out of a bad neighbourhood into a life dedicated to the company; Amy, slacker twenty-something who is fooling no-one with her claims that she won’t be working retail for the rest of her life; Ruth Anne, fifty-something bubbly blonde who lives for Orsk and whose only wish is to send her customers out the door with a smile on their faces. These three, and the other uninvited employees who find themselves in the store – Matt and Trinity – are beautifully-drawn, each of them someone we know, someone we’ve probably worked with at some point in our careers, caricatures that nevertheless feel comfortably real, despite the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves.

The backstory that comes to light as we progress through the story – and the night – is by no means original to Horrorstör, nor is it meant to be. This is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a twist in the location, so it’s no surprise when we learn that the land on which this Orsk store was built has something of a past.

“But ghosts only haunt houses[…]”

“This is a building with bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms,” Matt said. “If that’s your definition of a house, then Orsk is a house. ‘A Home for the Everyone.’”

Which is not to say that you’ve seen Horrorstör before. Sure, there are elements of The Office here; a tip of the hat to the opening sequence of Shaun of the Dead, and a building that exhibits some of the same properties – and exudes some of the same ice-cold chill – as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but Grady Hendrix has produced something fresh, something original, something that will frighten even the most hardened fan of horror while, at the same time, making them laugh. If you’ve seen Ikea’s The Shining advertisement, you’ll begin to get some idea of just how creepy giant empty furniture shops can be; Horrorstör builds on this sense of wrongness to produce a haunting and disturbing masterpiece.

IKEA’s 2014 Halloween advertisement

Horrorstör is a beautifully-presented piece, from the Ikea catalogue-like front cover to the detailed illustrations of the various furniture items that you’re likely to find on the Orsk Showroom floor, it is, like Reif Larsen’s The Select Works of T. S. Spivet, a complete package that works best when story and design are combined. A wonderfully-written haunted house story, it will keep you up late into the night, and make you think twice about nipping to the local Swedish furniture superstore for meatballs or another Billy bookcase. Approach with caution, but do not miss at any cost.

THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood

Unquiet_House_PBO THE UNQUIET HOUSE

Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£7.99

Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?

It is love at first sight when Emma Dean first sets eyes on Mire House, which she has inherited from a distant, previously-unknown relative. She moves in and soon discovers there is more to the house than meets the eye: the dirty black suit hanging in the wardrobe, and the old man that obviously owns it who she finds standing at the end of her bed on her first night in the house; the muddy footprints that keep appearing in the hall; and, most disturbing of all, the bench in the neighbouring church yard that overlooks the house and is inscribed with the legend "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Matthew 27:46". Is the house really, as it seems, haunted, or is it all the work of Charlie, a young man her own age who should have had a stronger claim to Mire House? As we step back through the history of the house, it becomes clear that it is a cursed place, and in gifting it to Emma, Clarence Mitchell may well have had an ulterior motive.

With her third novel, Alison Littlewood returns to the realms of horror that we find in her debut novel, A Cold Season. What at first seems like a straightforward haunted house story takes dark and sinister turns as we learn the history of Mire House and the woman for whom it was built. The story opens in 2013, with Emma Dean inheriting the house from a relative she didn’t know she had. As soon as we see the house, we can feel that there is something wrong, though Emma herself seems completely captivated by it. There is something malevolent here, a sense that the house knows what it wants (look at the colour of the living room through the different eras, for example), and that the people that have died here in the past are still present. We return to Emma at the end of the novel, with a better understanding of what is happening and, more importantly, why.

Between these two bookending sections, we pay visits to the house in 1973 and again during the final stages of its construction in 1939. Frank Watt, a young boy of eleven, is our guide for the former section, while Frank’s mother, Aggie, takes over the reins for the latter. As we proceed backwards through time, we unpeel the history of Mire House as if it were the layers of an onion. Rumours and supposition give way to harder facts: in 1973 we meet Mr Owens, the owner of the dirty black suit that Emma finds hanging in her wardrobe, and catch more substantial glimpses of the lady in the black veil. In 1939, we meet the lady in the black veil while she is still alive, and learn, first-hand, the terrible history behind the curse on Mire House.

The three stories are cleverly intertwined in a way that gives us the information we need as we progress back through history, but still holds enough back to ensure maximum impact for the final reveal. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale that grabs the reader from the very first glimpse of Mire House, and carries us along – uneasy and, let’s be honest, more than a little bit frightened – for the duration. Alison Littlewood once again proves that she is a master (mistress?) of the quiet school of horror. Her writing is pitch perfect, the language changing according to the time period, her ability to induce a bad case of the heebie jeebies in the reader second to none.

The Unquiet House feels partly like an homage to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black – the big old house bordered by marshland; the cemetery; and, perhaps most telling, the woman in the black veil and her terrible history. Far from a reworking, or retreading of the plot, though, The Unquiet House is a beast of an entirely different species: stripped of all the finery, it’s a haunted house novel and, despite the presence of the ghosts, it is the house itself that instils the greatest fear in the reader. It’s a haunted house novel by a writer of exceptional skill (I’ve said it before, but it does bear repeating) that stands alongside the greats of the genre: fertile ground worked by the likes of Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, against whose seminal works Alison Littlewood can hold her head high.

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

THE SHINING by Stephen King

THE SHINING - Stephen King THE SHINING

Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)

Hodder (www.hodder.co.uk)

£8.99

review-projectIt came as no surprise when this month’s Hodderscape Review Project title dropped through the letterbox and turned out to be Stephen King’s classic novel, The Shining. With this month seeing Hodder & Stoughton publish the book’s highly-anticipated (by me!) sequel, Doctor Sleep, it was the obvious book to get us all in the mood. I may have mentioned before that I’m a big fan of King, so it was with great joy that I dived in, happy to have an excuse to re-read one of his early books.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

Jack Torrance is a dry alcoholic with a temper problem. Recently fired from a good job teaching English in a Vermont school, he is now reduced to taking hand-outs from his friend and fellow drinker, Al Shockley. Al owns a stake in the Overlook Hotel, a Colorado resort hotel that caters to the rich crowd during the summer months, and closes completely between September and May, snowed in and lonely on its perch, high in the Rockies. The hotel needs a caretaker during those long lonely months, and Jack takes the job, his last chance to get straight and provide for his family – beautiful wife Wendy, and five-year-old son Danny. As the winter closes in, and the Torrance family is cut off from the rest of society, it becomes clear that something malicious is roaming the halls of the Overlook Hotel, something that wants to get its claws into young Danny, whose ability to "shine" has awoken long-sleeping demons.

‘You got a knack,’ Hallorann said, turning to him. ‘Me, I’ve always called it shining. That’s what my grandmother called it, too. She had it. We used to sit in the kitchen when I was a boy no older than you and have long talks without even openin our mouths.’

Like many people of my generation, my first experience of Stephen King’s The Shining was actually Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the novel. To say the controversial film version has coloured my handful of readings of the novel would be an understatement: Jack Nicholson’s inimitable brand of crazy infects Jack Torrance on the page so that the two are almost inseparable, while Danny Lloyd’s finger-waving, "Redrum"-chanting Danny is second only to Harvey Stephens’ Damien Thorn in the "scariest child performance ever committed to celluloid" stakes. That said, I’ve always preferred the source material to the film adaptation, and this re-read has done nothing to change my mind on that score.

At its core, The Shining is a haunted house novel. The house, in this instance, is the Overlook Hotel itself, of course, but the premise still holds. When we first meet Jack Torrance, he is being interviewed for the winter caretaker position. The hotel has a history, one that the manager is unwilling to divulge, but which Jack gleans from Watson, the foul-mouthed maintenance man, and Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef. Like any big hotel, it has its history of scandals and deaths. But the Overlook is different; invested with an evil sentience, it sees the power of Danny’s "shining" and uses every trick in its armoury to take it for itself. The old dead woman lying in the bathtub in Room 217 (a scene which, even now, sends shivers up my spine); the wasps’ nest whose inhabitants come back to life; the topiary animals which have a life of their own, to name but a few of the horrors the reader will encounter during their stay at the Overlook.

Initially, the story centres on Jack Torrance. Short-tempered, but essentially a good man, he sees his stint in the Overlook as a last chance to get himself on track and keep his family together. The subject of divorce has already raised its head, following an episode where a drunken Jack broke his young son’s arm. Jack’s weaknesses – his temper, and his constant thirst – make him an easy target for whatever malignant force inhabits the hotel. As Jack slowly loses his mind, and succumbs to the hotel’s siren song, the focus of the story shifts to the other two members of the Torrance family, particularly the youngest member, whose imaginary friend, Tony, has shown him dark and frightening premonitions of what might happen when they’re cut off from the rest of the world. Danny’s unique ability to "shine" is, ultimately – and to Jack’s jealous dismay – what the hotel is after. As a result, many of the horrors we see – Mrs Massey in Room 217, the topiary animals, the dreams of the familiar Shape swinging the roque mallet – we see through the eyes of this innocent little boy, a trick which magnifies them in the reader’s mind, leaving horrific impressions long after the book has ended.

King charges the story with a sense of claustrophobia – no mean feat when the setting is a 110-bedroom luxury hotel. As the snow falls, then drifts, and the Torrances are cut off from the nearest town, Sidewinder, Jack’s increasingly irrational behaviour turns more towards outright insanity. Frequent intervals of clarity, in which we see this man’s love for his family, make the downward spiral all the more frightening. We get a sense of the world closing down around us; nowhere to run and, following a number of "accidents", no way to contact the outside world. I’ve read The Shining maybe three or four times prior to this outing, and I still find something new every time; this, for example, is my first time reading the story through the somewhat sleep-deprived eyes of fatherhood. The relationships between Jack and Danny, and Wendy and Danny take on a new meaning with this new experience under my belt. My own son isn’t much younger than the Danny Torrance of the book, and that serves to make the young boy’s terrifying experiences all the more traumatic for me.

The Shining stands the test of time better than most. As relevant today as it was when it was first published over 35 years ago, it is also as deeply disturbing and outright frightening as it has always been, even for today’s hardened reader. The pop culture references in which King delights are in place, though his earlier novels seem to be less littered with them than his more recent ones; but rather than dating the work, they give it a sense of time, and take us back to a period when the world was a simpler – not to mention much larger – place. The isolation helps in this regard, so that it’s a novel driven by the three people at the heart of its story rather than by any outside influences that might mean nothing to the modern reader. King delights in the use of a clever trick which gives us some insight into the minds of the protagonists, as brief flashes of thought interrupt the flow of the narrative, often mid-sentence:

His heart thudding slowly in his chest, he took his pictures and then set the camera down to wait for them to develop. He wiped his lips with the palm of his hand. One thought played over and over in his mind, echoing with

(You lost your temper. You lost your temper. You lost your temper.)

an almost superstitious dread. They had come back. He had killed the wasps but they had come back.

In all the hype that now surrounds the name of Stephen King, it’s easy to forget just what The Shining is: it’s the third novel of a young novelist – not yet thirty years old – who is still in the process of making a name for himself. Like Carrie, it relies as much on human nature as on the supernatural for its scares – Jack’s descent into madness is certainly down to whatever is haunting the Overlook, but it’s his fragile state of mind, his damaged self-esteem, and his constant need for a drink that opens the door to whatever is trying to get inside. It’s this meshing of natural and supernatural that grounds not only The Shining, but the vast majority of King’s novels, in some version of reality (don’t forget that Dark Tower that holds all these different realities together). It is this sense of realism that makes The Shining the fine horror novel it is: it’s plausible, it’s memorable and, most of all, it provides us with a cast of characters with whom it is very easy for the reader to relate.

How do you sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written? Or, for that matter, add anything new to the debate? Suffice it to say that The Shining should be top of your list for haunted house stories, for great horror fiction, for great fiction. The latest paperback edition from Hodder is a beauty to behold, and includes not only a brief extract from Doctor Sleep, but also a short, but interesting, foreword from King, which goes some way towards explaining the origins of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism and the effect it had on the story King wanted to tell. If I had one complaint, it’s the bafflement that a book that has been in print constantly for over thirty-five years can still have a significant number of typographical errors. That said, it won’t ruin your enjoyment of this gripping story which will make you want to keep all the lights switched on, and pray that you’re in any room but 217 the next time you check into a hotel. While Stephen King continues to produce some of the best novels, in any genre, that you’re likely to find in your local bookshop, it’s sometimes easy to forget about these early gems. If your first thought upon hearing the book’s title is the vision of Jack Nicholson’s crazed eyes staring through that ruined door panel ("Heeeeere’s Johnny!"), then do yourself a favour and give yourself the fright of your life.

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