I’ve had the worst luck with horror books lately. I read three very different horror books recently, and had different expectations for each of them, and in one way or another none of them managed to live up to them. At this point I’m going to stop expecting horror books to scare me, and just focus on whether the story is interesting or not. In that sense, and perhaps ironically, the book I liked the most was the one where the horror elements were most vague.
The Winter People
West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter.
Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that has weighty consequences when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. In her search for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked into the historical mystery, she discovers that she’s not the only person looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.
Where to even start with this book? Nothing really worked, it wasn’t scary, even though it included paranormal elements that sort of, tentatively, inched ever that way. It was atmospheric, and eerie, and it was set in a frozen winter landscape, which I always appreciate in horror books, and in every kind of book if I’m being completely honest. It was told from four different points of view, two in the past and two in the present. The past segments were far more interesting than the present, but also where my biggest issue with this book lay — it was straight up racist.
Spoilers ahead, but this is a 1 star review, so I’m not recommending this book anyway, but if you plan on reading it despite my warning maybe skip ahead a few paragraphs.
Sara, whose daughter’s death is the catalyst for this whole novel, was raised by Auntie, a Native American woman, and her father’s partner for many years. Auntie was portrayed as a stern woman, who was sometimes brusque with Sara, but clearly loved her despite her gruff exterior. There’s really nothing out of the ordinary about Auntie’s characterisation up to this point, other than she seems to have an “ancient knowledge” of how to bring people back from the dead (which…I mean, native people and black people having some sort of mystical power in an otherwise magic-less world is already pretty sketchy, but this book was about to surprise me). Anyway, one of the mysteries of the book is how Sara’s daughter died, for most of it we are lead to believe it was either by Sara’s own hand or her husband’s. Until we learn of the events leading up to Auntie’s “death”.
The people of Sara’s village didn’t approve of Auntie’s relationship with Sara’s father. Eventually the public scorn got to be too much for him, and he broke things off with Auntie. And then things got batshit insane. Because Auntie reacted to that by murdering and stringing up Sara’s brother, who adored Auntie and really looked up to her. Sara tells her father this, and the two of them go to Auntie’s cottage in the woods to confront her, I don’t remember if Sara’s dad actively set fire to the cottage, or if a fire broke out. Anyway, the house burns down, Sara never sees Auntie again and assumes she died in the fire.
You can already see where this is going. It turns out Auntie survived, and after years away returned to the village and murdered Sara’s daughter to get back at her, for telling her father what she’d done to her brother. It was completely bizarre, and completely out of left field, I couldn’t figure out what the author intended with any of this, besides straight up racism. Why does the only native american character in the whole novel, react to the very unfair discrimination of an entire community by murdering a child who loved her? Why does she then get revenge by murdering another child? What is the moral of all of this? Horror novels usually have one of those.
I considered the possibility of the author wanting to portray Auntie as being justified in her revenge, but it just doesn’t seem likely, her actions aren’t meant to be sympathetic — murdering children hardly ever is — nor are Sara and her husband portrayed as villainous or unsympathetic. So, the portrayal of Auntie just seems like a deranged caricature and for absolutely no good reason! She could have been a white woman the village disapproved of because she wasn’t married to Sara’s father, it would still make her actions irrational, contrived, and bad story-telling all together but hey, at least it wouldn’t have been racist!
The present segments weren’t very memorable, and the characters made a slew of bad decisions because the plot required them to. Overall, I had a miserable experience with this book, and don’t recommend it to anyone, unless you either like racist depictions of Native Americans, or to spend money on books only to get angry at racist depictions of Native Americans.
Author: Jennifer McMahon
At the end of a dark prairie road, nearly forgotten in the Kansas countryside, lies the Finch House. For years it has perched empty, abandoned, and overgrown–but soon the door will be opened for the first time in many decades. But something waits, lurking in the shadows, anxious to meet its new guests.
When best-selling horror author Sam McGarver is invited to spend Halloween night in one of the country’s most infamous haunted houses, he reluctantly agrees. At least he won’t be alone; joining him are three other masters of the macabre, writers who have helped shape modern horror. But what begins as a simple publicity stunt soon becomes a fight for survival–the entity they have awakened will follow them, torment them, threatening to make them part of the bloody legacy of Kill Creek.
This book had so much promise. The fact that it tells the story of four horror writers who are talked into spending a night in a supposed haunted house by this obnoxious internet millionaire was such an original premise, and it stood out as something I wanted to read immediately. Unfortunately, it never managed to live up that initial thrill.
I liked the characters, for the most part. The author is a man and you can tell, the female characters are described in an often eye-rolling way most of the time. And I have to give special attention to TC Moore. She comes across as very unsympathetic initially, and I was afraid she was meant to be a caricature of a “shrill feminist” who thinks everyone is out to get her. But she made some really great points, which made me think the author probably agreed with her, and she mellows out towards the other characters, which led me to realise her prickly exterior was probably a defence mechanism — the reveal of her backstory sort of confirms this. I’m of two minds about her, she’s a character I liked, but I’m not sure I like how the author went about her characterisation, although I don’t think he did this with bad intentions, just in a clumsy way. If her interactions with de facto protagonist, and somewhat transparent author expy Sam McGarver, are anything to go by the author is attracted to women like her, and that’s where the awkward characterisation probably comes from.
My favourite character is without a doubt Sebastian Cole, who is the old-school horror master, and also gay. He’s the one character I wanted to be following when I was stuck with Sam’s angst, but what can you do. He’s also the one character who has a somewhat “positive” experience with the house. The writers spend two days in the house and then leave, but are continuously haunted even back in their own homes. Initially I liked this, but eventually I came to wish they’d just spend the entire book at the Finch house, because the novelty of having the house haunting them even when they weren’t there wore thin. Some Spoilers ahead: I mention Sebastian’s “positive” experience, because he very selflessly sacrifices himself, even if he was technically the character with the least motives to, besides being old and lonely — I would be more annoyed with a gay character sacrificing himself to save heterosexual people if this wasn’t a horror book where most people ended up dead.
I’ll also mention the one black character is the first to die by the house’s actions, in a way that feels almost like fridging. Her death seems to not serve much purpose besides causing her boyfriend grief, and the same can be said about the death of one character related to one of the writers. Again, I won’t pick to much at that, because this is a horror book, and death is sort of to be expected. But the fact that the most boring, most white bread character suffers the least was something digging at the back of my mind.
My biggest issue, though,wasn’t with the characters, but 100% with the plot, because the author tried so much to be original and inventive that the ending ended up being anti-climatic and honestly, sort of silly. I was telling my girlfriend about this book, and she was laughing at most of what I was describing. It was very convoluted, in a way that tried to be frightening but was honestly pathetic if you didn’t find any of the events all that scary. I guess that’s what my feelings about this book boil down to: it tried so hard to scare me, by god it tried, and the more it tried and failed the angrier I got. It might have been a case of me just not being in the mood for it, I admit, and I can see a lot of people not only being scared by, but enjoying, this book thoroughly.
Author: Scott Thomas
The Dark Beneath the Ice
Something is wrong with Marianne.
It’s not just that her parents have split up, or that life hasn’t been the same since she quit dancing. Or even that her mother has checked herself into the hospital.
She’s losing time. Doing things she would never do. And objects around her seem to break whenever she comes close.
Something is after her. But a first attempt at an exorcism calls down the full force of the thing’s rage. It demands Marianne give back what she stole. And Marianne must uncover the truth that lies beneath it all before the nightmare can take what it think it’s owed, leaving Marianne trapped in the darkness of the other side.
This is the book I liked the most, I wasn’t sure what to expect considering I’ve never read YA horror before, but I didn’t expect it to be all that scary. And while it wasn’t, out of the three books I read it was the one that used psychological terror in the most effective way. It was also the only one that remembered that horror needs to uphold some moral maxim (kill creek recognises this in the actual text, but then doesn’t follow through), maybe that’s old-fashioned of me, to expect that, but I honestly enjoy that aspect of horror, when it’s well done — for a bad maxim see all the horror movies where the maxim is: be a good virgin girl and you’ll survive; for a good maxim see the Babadook: family that stays together overcomes hardship / difference is neither scary nor bad.
The Dark Beneath the Ice works like an extended analysis of the deep isolation, insecurity, and misery caused by depression. And you’re aware of this almost from the beginning without the word ever being mentioned. It was suffocating and stiffing, and I felt as uncomfortable as the protagonist. I was aware that no one would believe what was happening to her, and so I worried for her well-being, I was extremely relieved when she found someone who did. In that sense the book was very effective at making me experience the protagonist’s pain, in a way that none of the other two books managed. And Marianne is a very sympathetic protagonist, even if at times she seems paralysed by what’s happening to her.
Which isn’t to say she doesn’t take action. She does, but in a way it doesn’t seem enough, everything is so fraught that every bit of progress seems to happen out of sheer luck rather than because of her agency. It’s a good thing that she has Rhiannon, who is not only Marianne’s love interest but also the first person to believe what’s happening to her and the character who takes charge and tries to come up with solutions. Rhiannon is also the person that leads to things getting worse before they get better, which is a nice nod towards Marianne’s journey towards self-acceptance, which doesn’t take centre stage, but is one of the factors contributing to her declining mental health.
Another complaint I have with this book is that it was very meandering at times, the story didn’t seem to be advancing, a lot of things were happening but they didn’t lead anywhere until later, they just worked as an escalation of the danger but nothing came of it. This was a fast read, but for some reason I’m left with the feeling that not enough happened. I still enjoyed myself, I enjoyed the relationship between Marianne and Rhiannon, and watching it develop from a tentative friendship between two girls who couldn’t seem more different.
I also absolutely love the depiction of the crushing realisation you are not as good at something as you thought you were — and the painful process of falling out of love with it, and giving up on it, because a perfectionist nature doesn’t allow you to enjoy things for fun. That hit very close to home. Once upon a time I was a Fine Arts student, and I understand full well what Marianne went through.
Author: Amelinda Bérubé
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire