Not-So-Horrific Halloween Read: “The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

woman in the window

If you’re the type who likes to curl up with a twisty, suspenseful Hitchcock flick on Halloween, here’s a novel you should try!

Anna Fox lives as a recluse in her New York City home.  She spends most of her time watching Hitchcock movies, drinking, and spying on her neighbors.  Then one night she thinks she witnesses a murder in the house across the street.  From there it’s a downward spiral into trying to decide what’s real and what isn’t, who’s lying, and what Anna actually saw that night.

Anna isn’t very likeable, nor is she very reliable, but she’s compelling to read about.  The Woman in the Window is a page-turner of a thriller, with quite elegant writing and an absorbing narrative voice.  The twists and turns and reveals of the book are a slow build, and there’s a constant air of uncertainty and menace as events unfold.

The references to Hitchcock movies and other thriller/film noir pieces abound, and the book really does have the feel of a black and white psychological suspense film.  Perfect for unsettling you on a Halloween night!

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“Audrey’s Door” by Sarah Langan

Sometimes all you want to curl up with is a good old-fashioned haunted house story brimming with creepy imagery, unsettling atmosphere, and a main character who’s not quite all there.  Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan delivers.

audrey's doorAudrey Lucas, an architect with a lot of baggage, is on the hunt for a place to live in New York.  Apartment 14B in the historic Breviary building on the Upper West Side is available at an astonishingly low price.  Even though she thinks it must be too good to be true, Audrey can’t pass up the opportunity to live for cheap in such a unique building–it’s the last standing example of the Chaotic Naturalism school of architecture.  Never mind the fact that just recently a woman murdered all of her children in that same apartment, and then killed herself.  And never mind the fact that Audrey immediately begins to have strange, vivid nightmares, and hears a voice telling her to build a door.

Fans of The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House will find a lot to like in Audrey’s Door.  In fact, Langan gives those works and a few others their due in a note at the beginning of the book.  Gloomy corridors, a protagonist on a downward spiral that’s seemingly impossible to stop, a building with a mind of its own, and when the terrifying insanity ramps up, it ramps up.

Like the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, the Breviary is a character, complete with motivations and personality.  It’s such a strong entity that it can’t help but overcome any human beings who come into contact with it.  Langan takes the time and care to give the Breviary’s backstory just as much attention as she does Audrey’s, which works to build the connection between the building and its chosen favorite.

That’s what separates the good haunted house stories from the so-so ones–the good ones make sure the house has a personality and a history, a reason for being the way that it is.  A haunted house doesn’t just have ghosts or ghoulies in it.  A haunted house has an energy, a force, one that turns our cozy idea of hearth and home on its head.  That’s why they’re scary, after all.  You’re supposed to feel safe in your home.  When your home is insane, there’s nowhere to hide.

As much as Langan might owe to haunted house classics, she has a style all her own.  She has a great talent for writing compelling protagonists and for truly disturbing and creepy imagery.  Her writing is very character-driven, and everyone has a strong voice and personality.  Audrey’s descent into madness is a chilling one to witness.  Langan is also darkly funny at times, too, which always makes a welcome counterpoint to the scary.  There are also some very well-placed New York City references and nods, which add a nice sense of place.

If you’re after a cozy, old-fashioned spook house book for Halloween this year, Audrey’s Door might be a good one to try.

–Marie

“A Head Full of Ghosts” by Paul Tremblay

Exorcism and possession story fans, have I got one for you this year.  Let me introduce you to A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
head full of ghostsWhen Merry was a little girl, her older sister was possessed by a demon–and her cash-strapped family made a reality-TV show about it.  In the present, Merry is the only surviving member of her family, and she’s agreed to let an author write a book about her.   And in a third narrative, there’s a horror blogger discussing the TV show and its impact and background.  What really happened to Merry’s sister?  And why is Merry the only one who made it out alive?

I’ll go ahead and say I absolutely loved this, especially the construction.  I love how Tremblay uses the blog narrative to train you to think in horror references, and then how he uses that to set up the reveal at the end.  If you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (and if you haven’t, do pick it up either before or after you read this one!) you’ll figure it out, but it’s great either way.  (Sorry. I guess I just sort of spoiled both books with that, but I enjoyed it anyway, and having some idea of what was going to happen didn’t lessen the emotional impact for me at all.)

A reviewer on Goodreads who didn’t like the book used the phrase “warmed over Shirley Jackson.”  I don’t think this is fair.  I’d say Tremblay took the chili that Shirley Jackson made and then made tamale pie with it.  He didn’t just microwave it and slop it down in front of you.  He added and mixed and spiced and topped until, while you can still taste the chili, there’s an entirely new dish.  I’d go so far as to say he even made his own topping from scratch, he didn’t use Jiffy mix.

Anyway, you see what I’m getting at.  Tremblay pays an homage while making the story his own.  And it’s a great story with wonderfully drawn characters, particularly Merry.  Horror, like Romance, is a genre where you have to care about the characters, at least a little.  The best Horror makes you care, so that the terrifying things that happen and the fight against darkness seems to be happening to you personally.  It’s a very visceral experience.  Tremblay succeeds in depicting a family in full break-down, and choosing to narrate through Merry’s eight-year-old eyes makes that storyline even sadder, more confusing, and scarier.  Is it mental illness, or a demon?  Is Merry remembering correctly?  How much did she create in order to make sense of her family falling apart?

It’s also jam-packed with frightening sequences, described in atmospheric, chilling detail.  Possession stories, like The Exorcist, always make a lot out of how scary a human being behaving in unnatural or unusual ways can be.

All three of the voices ring true, the imagery is genuinely creepy, and the story is an affecting mix of scary and melancholy, with enough jumps and twists and unsettling scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat.  A really wonderful blend of horror and psychological suspense, one of the best ones I read this year.

–Marie

P.S.
It’s October, the season to be a cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater!  #5 complete, a book published this year.  Boom.

Marie’s Reading: “Her” by Harriet Lane

HerHi.  How are you?  Great.  I’m okay, thanks.

So I finished one of the novels I was excited to read when last we met.  It’s the one called Her, about a woman named Nina who has a mysterious connection to a woman named Emma–a connection that could probably be called a grudge.    From the start we know that Nina remembers Emma, but Emma does not remember Nina.  We also realize quickly that Nina is not altogether quite right upstairs (she indulges in quite a bit of distanced psychological torture and gaslighting).  Emma is simply overwhelmed by her current life circumstances, and in just the right place emotionally to fall into Nina’s traps.

Sounds good, right?  Remember?  I was all:

oh-yes

Her by Harriet Lane is a novel that eases along, sidling up to you, until it grabs you by the neck in the final few moments.  You never reach a crescendo, nor are you desperate to keep turning pages.  The reveal, when it comes, seems so small–but to Nina, it is huge. The ending is a flurry of panic and a moment of realization which puts the novel’s events into perspective.

Lane uses a dual narrative, going back and forth between Emma and Nina.  But instead of a strictly linear narrative, you see events through the eyes of both characters.  After finishing the book you get a sense of how this device really does help reinforce the novel’s ending as well as Nina’s actions.  Nina and Emma have distinct voices and well-drawn concerns.  When you’re in Emma’s world you feel her annoyances and her disappointments and she’s a lot more sympathetic than when you see her through Nina’s eyes.  It’s a good device for getting characters across, along with their first-person voices.

In all, if you’re expecting a thriller in terms of pacing, your reaction to this novel might be more like this, as mine was initially:

raining_david_tennant

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I recognized how insidious the plotting and character development is.  You’re not watching a trainwreck or a roller-coaster, but rather a spider building a web.  Her is a slow burn attached to an uncertain explosive.

I was reminded a lot of Patricia Highsmith’s early stories when I got to the end.  Give those a try for a readalike.  Liane Moriarty or Kate Morton might appeal as well, if you enjoy stories where there are secrets to be revealed and dark motivations to uncover.  The recent The Girl on the Train, which I talked about here, might also appeal to those who enjoy the narrative voices and construction of Her.

–Marie