The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff. A horror tale set on a college campus, about five students brought together over Thanksgiving break. The only thing they all have in common is that they all have dark pasts. Together, though, they find they have a lot of power. It could all be suggestion, it could all be a prank…or there could be dark forces at work.
Here’s the thing about genre conventions: they are excellent shorthand, clueing the reader in to what will follow. When a man and woman bicker constantly at the outset of a romance, they will fall in love. When a pistol appears in the first act, it will be fired by the end of the third.
When five students find a Ouija board over a holiday weekend in a college dormitory, bad things will go down.
The Harrowing is Sokoloff’s first novel. As such it has a few first-novel issues–you can tell she’s still figuring out her voice and her narrative style, for instance. Yet all the great things about her work are already here. I mentioned a lot of what I like about her style when I discussed her later book The Unseen for the Halloween Countdown. Sokoloff is great at atmosphere. Between her ability to deftly create a scene and her pacing, there’s something almost cinematic about her work. So I’d say if you enjoy horror movies, you might want to give her books a try.
Where The Unseen dealt with poltergeists, The Harrowing centers on demonic possession. Sokoloff’s interest and background in psychology is very present here, and there’s a lot of discussion about the psychology behind the creation of demons. There’s also the college story element, which Sokoloff also seems partial to in her stories. At one point I was thinking how this book is sort of like The Breakfast Club, only instead of spending a morning in detention everybody might spend eternity in hell.
Par for the course in a demonic possession story, we also get a lot of religious background–what’s neat here, though, is that it’s Jewish theology. I thought that was a fascinating way to go. It seems fresh, as so many possession stories deal with the Catholic church and exorcism ceremony. Here, the notion of a demon has less to do with pure evil than with being somehow lost, somehow broken, somehow striving for life. It’s a theme that Sokoloff makes explicit in several places, and it works well.
Sokoloff’s books are entertaining, unsettling pieces of horror fiction, told with simple but effective prose and wonderful atmosphere. If you enjoy the haunted house and/or possession stories of Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and Richard Matheson, you might like Sokoloff’s books.
This Norman Rockwell painting of a 1920’s couple using a Ouija board has nothing to do with anything, it was just too good not to share: