Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: "House of Echoes" by Brendan Duffy

Turning The Crofts into a bed-and-breakfast is supposed to be a break for the Tierneys. Ben plans to work on his new novel in the rural stillness, while Caroline buries her struggles with bipolar disorder in renovating the historic estate and developing her culinary repertoire. Their older son, Charlie, spends hours roaming the woods of upstate New York, where there are no urban bullies to torment him.

But the promise of a new start eludes them at every turn. So does the hope of peace. 

The Crofts has too many dead animals to be explained away by coyote activity, and the village of Swannhaven has an unreal number of disasters in its few centuries of history. While Ben abandons his book in favor of a new project--researching Swannhaven--Caroline's paranoia convinces her that her own husband is a stranger. And Charlie claims he isn't alone when he plays in the woods all day. 

5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

A few days ago, dear readers, you read about my alarm upon realizing that I was accidentally reading a horror book. I'm happy to say that not only did I survive the experience, but I loved the book in question: Brendan Duffy's debut novel, House of Echoes.

It seems to me that, in order to write a really good horror story, a certain balance of elements is required:

  • The author must create characters whom the reader cares about, in whose survival and well-being the reader is invested. Otherwise, the reader will feel no distress when those characters are endangered.
  • Secondly, the author must build (and maintain) a sense of subdued tension, that air of general wrongness that often stays just below conscious awareness. If the tension in a horror story is too blatant--the written equivalent of DUN DUN DUN! at every turn--the reader disengages. It's overkill. On the other hand, neither can the author whip out the monster/the killer/the pile of bodies without having first cued their audience, even subliminally, to be on guard. "Jump scares" don't work as well on the written page as well as in movies.
  • Lastly, the author must seed the story throughout with clues--whether false or true--about the nature or the existence of the horror elements. Horror stories are rather like mysteries. Perhaps the characters aren't called upon to "solve" (or resolve) whatever horrific thing they are doomed to encounter, but they do have to prove it, or perhaps, have it proved to them. Whatever is unthinkable must be thought, after all. One must suspect the ghastly truth even as one strives to deny it, until the evidence is overwhelming.

    (There's a bit of the old put-a-frog-in-boiling-water simile in here as well. When horror stories are obvious, they are laughable. If you walk into a house for the first time and find blood dripping from the walls, you leave that house, yes? Otherwise, the audience thinks that you're the biggest fool alive (for what little time you have left) and is only waiting for your inevitable demise. But if the eeriness of your house slowly escalates, with you producing perfectly reasonable justifications all along, by the time you are faced with the old blood-dripping-from-the-walls trick, you have invested a lot of time and thought into why it couldn't possibly be happening. Even though it is.)

    (This is not to say that any walls bleed in this particular book.)
In House of Echoes, Brendan Duffy achieves a perfect degree of balance between all of these necessary components. Even while I was glued to the book on an emotional level--trying to convince myself to put the book down before it got too scary for me to sleep--on a mental level, I was impressed by the skill with which Duffy tells his tale.

One aspect of the book that I particularly relished was the ongoing question: what sort of a horror story is this to be? Monstrous, supernatural, or mundane? Duffy keeps the reader guessing until the final chapters. The way that the novel is composed, even knowing which sort of horror is in play doesn't remove the fear imposed by the specter of the other possibilities.

I also enjoyed the complex relationships between the members of the Tierney family. (I have to say that it was the tally of family members--husband, wife, two small children, and estranged uncle--which confirmed my suspicions that I'd picked up a horror story. My roommate is my witness. I was hollering at her, "I've read House of Leaves, I can see where this is going and it's not good!")

Duffy's characters are as grounded in the reality of their commonplace world as you or I would be. They approach their plotline like reasonable people, which earns them the reader's respect. (I'd call them "genre-savvy," but that implies a degree of fourth-wall breaking which doesn't occur.) Of course that door banging open and shut in the middle of the night is just the wind, because what else could it be... but you'll still grab a knife from the kitchen on your way to check it out. Just in case. Even if you feel awfully silly doing it. Of course that shrieking sound in the attic is just the wind coming through a crack, so you grab the duct tape to seal it, but you sure aren't happy to be going up there alone. Just in case. Because the characters react to the same sources of tension which the readers do, the reader is bound empathetically to them.

Duffy sets his stage well. The novel is written in rich yet clean prose, descriptions being vivid but limited. I wanted to read about the Tierney's renovations of the old house as much as I wanted them to flee before the sense of doom caught up with them. Throughout the book, I was picturing a particular bed-and-breakfast I know in Williamsburg, Virginia; I believe that any reader will have their own dearly-held memories in play while reading.

I don't want to tell you too much about the book, dear reader, and risk ruining your experience. The slow mystery is part of its charm, but even knowing the answer, I look forward to rereading it. Moreover, any future book of Duffy's has a guaranteed spot on my reading list, horror or no. He is not only a skilled storyteller, he is a craftsman of the first class. I look forward to his next novel.

I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads Giveaway program for the purposes of reviewing. I received no money for writing this.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail

Overall Response: Can't sleep! Must keep reading!

Content Warning: animal deaths, gory descriptions of animal deaths, character deaths, mistreatment of mental illness

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