Halloween Read: “The Unseen” by Alexandra Sokoloff

If you’re after a truly creepy haunted house story in the same vein as Richard Matheson’s Hell House and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, give Alexandra Sokoloff’s The Unseen a try.

Here is the summary, given by Shelfari:

A terrifying novel of suspense based on the Rhine parapsychology experiments at Duke University   After experiencing a precognitive dream that ends her engagement and changes her life forever, a young psychology professor [Laurel Macdonald] from California decides to get a fresh start by taking a job at Duke University in North Carolina. She soon becomes obsessed with the files from the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab experiments, which attempted to prove ESP really exists.   Along with a handsome professor, she uncovers troubling cases, including one about a house supposedly haunted by a poltergeist, investigated by another research team in 1965. Unaware that the entire original team ended up insane or dead, the two professors and two exceptionally gifted Duke students move into the abandoned mansion to replicate the investigation, with horrifying results.

Sokoloff does a fantastic job creating an uneasy, foreboding atmosphere–a must for this kind of story to work.  Another nice touch is that we are completely in the protagonist’s head for the entire novel.   Seeing things from Laurel’s point of view increases the suspense, as the reader pieces events together right along with her.  Like Laurel, you want to find out the truth–so you keep turning those pages.

The intensity, characterization, and suspense keep this story unsettling and entertaining.  There’s no blood or gore here.  Instead the scares come from the sense of unease that steadily builds over the course of the book.  By the second half, you’re immersed in the story’s universe, stuck in the possibly haunted mansion with the characters.  You’ll keep reading right through the end of your lunch break, absorbed and thoroughly creeped out, and when something makes a noise in the server room behind you, you will nearly suffer cardiac arrest.

…maybe that last part was just me.

Anyway, I’d highly suggest this book for people who like understated horror, and enjoy suspense and hints of mystery.  The scientific investigation also adds to the story–as I mentioned, it’s quite similar to Hell House.  Laurel’s uncertainty also adds to the discomfort and overall creepiness.  Are the phenomena being caused by a human hand?  Are there really ghosts?  Or is Laurel losing her mind?  The twist in the climax seems to answer the question, but the rather tauntingly open ending could possibly contradict that conclusion.  Which, of course, makes it all that much creepier.

I found this gem via the brilliant Becky Spatford, who literally wrote the book on Readers Advisory for horror fiction.  She also writes two blogs, RA For All and RA For All: Horror.  You can check out her review of The Unseen, and get some readalikes, here.  I’d like to second her suggestion of The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam, if you want a compelling and creepy story about possession and haunted houses.

In the interest of sharing creepy things and giving you a sense of the book’s atmosphere, I tried to find a book trailer for The Unseen.  I was unlucky.  So here’s the trailer for Stephen King’s Rose Red, which was on TV back in 2002.  It’s actually a pretty fair comparison to this novel when it comes to plot, character, and tone.  Plus it’s got Julian Sands in it, which is something The Unseen does not have.



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