Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Alexandra Sokoloff's THE HARROWING

Ever since Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House scared the living hell out of me at age 11 (even if I didn't completely understand it all at the time), I've enjoyed stories that involve supernatural nasties. I love gloomy old houses, spooky woods, creaking noises at night, and all those things that hint at the existence of unseen entities lurking at the edge of the real world. Something about ghosties and ghoulies can still hit a few vital nerves that the most awful of real-world horrors do not. It's a stimulating sense of awe rather than disgust and depression over the evil that men do.

The Harrowing, dare I say it, reminds me in no few ways of my own novel, The Lebo Coven. Cryptic messages from a Ouija board; a dark isolated setting; the Kaballah; rituals of summoning and banishment; something from the other side desiring to come here.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, rather than go home, five students at Baird College stay in their dorm—a rather forbidding, cavernous old mansion called Mendenhall—and discover a Ouija board, which, naturally enough, they begin using to pass the time. Soon, they are in contact with the spirit of a dead student named Zachary, who seems jovial enough, and is at first content to play word games with them. Or so it appears.

The five students are all social misfits, and in fact have very little in common with each other, at least initially. However, as the messages from the spirit world become darker and more personal, their lives become entwined in the most unexpected ways.

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Robin Stone, a lonely, "invisible" young woman whose inner strength, if she ever possessed any, seems to have eroded past any conceivable reserve—at least until she finds that her survival, and the survival of her new companions, is at stake. Each of the characters suffers from personally blinding weaknesses; however, the surprising, dire threat from realms beyond begins to coax out strengths that none knew they had.

This is Alex Sokoloff's first novel, and it's mostly an admirable undertaking. The better part of the story moves relatively slowly, focusing largely on Robin's inner struggles and her attempts to not only understand the unknown darkness but to delve behind the opaque veneers of these people with whom circumstances have forced her to interact. When the action does begin, it becomes fairly breathtaking—so much so that it sometimes lapses into an orgy of literary "special effects," a potentially fatal flaw that has been the downfall of many a supernatural tale. Lots of noise and screaming and fire and smoke, spectacle taking the place of true drama.

The result is a climax that seems a bit rushed and less painstakingly crafted than all that has come before. In fact, in the penultimate chapter, one character, a young woman named Lisa, after an especially brutal encounter with the otherworldly menace, suffers a shattered arm, which the author describes as dangling "at a sickening angle." Two pages later, in the midst of a panicked ritual, Lisa raises her arms and presses her hands together—a movement that would seem pretty much impossible under the circumstances.

Not a fatal flaw, but a distraction that pulled me away from the intimacy I had been enjoying with the book.

Despite a few such problems, The Harrowing is, overall, a decent first novel. I have to give Alexandra a great deal of credit for her storytelling, particularly in rendering a believable, atmospheric setting (in fact, I can't help but picture Seaview Terrace, a.k.a. Collinwood in the original Dark Shadows, as Mendenhall dormitory in the novel—particularly since Seaview has for many years been a dorm at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island).

If you enjoy tense drama and ghostly goings-on in a gloomy, atmospheric old house, The Harrowing may be just for you. In hardback and paperback from St. Martins Press.

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