I picked up this novel knowing literally nothing about it. I had read Peter Straub’s most recent Bram Stoker award winning novel Dark Matter, and really enjoyed it but didn’t think it was really the scariest book I’d ever read. When I saw this book was on the list I had myreservations about it, as I knew nothing about it and wasn’t sure if it was actually ‘read in the daytime only’ kind of scary or if it was‘that’s a scary concept’ scary like Dark Matter was. Then when I told some friends I was going to be reading this they both sprang to life and began shouting at me how good it was and how I needed to read it immediately. My interest grew immensely.
I had no idea that I was going to be picking up a novel that dealt with a winter with rapidly dropping temperatures right around Christmas time. This book didn’t need any help being more terrifying, but I certainly helped it by picking the most terrifying time to possibly read it as I felt like I was literally in the town with the characters. I will openly admit that it took me quite some time to get into, but once I passed about page 150 I couldn’t put it down and blew through the rest of it. I could certainly tell Straub’s writing style by the end of the novel, but this was a whole lot more terrifying than his other book I read. It gave me chills, made me afraid of the dark and I blame it slightly for nightmares I had while I was reading it. Here’s why……..
The Main Characters
I was reminded very much of IT by Stephen King as I read this novel in the sense of the main characters were a group of childhood friends who experienced a traumatic childhood experience that scarred each of them in different ways. The difference here is that they formed a group that met once every two weeks that got together and exchanged ghost stories. You got to know each character through their own perspective but there really wasn’t A MAIN character. As each man told their ghost stories they began experiencing hauntings that were similar but the faces of the ghosts were unique to each person. This made the entire thing more terrifying as it put the idea in your head of what if the ghosts you see were designed specifically for you? Straub did a fantastic job of introducing main characters outside this group, such as one of their nephews, and immediately made you care/fear for them. Each character was relatable in some sense and by the end of the novel you felt like you knew every single person in the town. Which made it all the more upsetting when they started dropping like flies.
I know that this book is significantly older than Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box, but it still reminded me of it so much in the sense of it had a ghost villain who wasn’t confined to one setting or object. Rather they could travel and physically harm them, just like the ghost in Heart Shaped Box. Now this was without question one of the scariest villains I’ve ever read in any ghost story. The reason being, she was a shape shifting immortal ghost who appeared in all of their back stories with the initials (A.M) and each time she caused the characters to self-destruct, lose loved ones and experience trauma. But the most terrifying thing was that she could enter each of their heads and so the ghosts she created were often the worst fears of the characters they created themselves. At one point a character is writing a book and pictures a creepy man who walks through the town playing the saxophone called Dr. Rabbitfoot. Later that evening he hears the saxophone playing outside his window and sees this very same character out there. The villain also used ghosts of their dead friends, loved ones and their desires to lure them to danger time and time again. During the book they defeat her three times, and each time she returns in an even more terrifying form (in the end she comes back as a ten year old girl). It was a villain that they were battling up to literally the final page, and it makes you unsettled because it made you feel like it could never be defeated. I’ve only seen terrifying villains like this with Pennywise and Charlie Manx. Unkillable predators whose only purpose is to create fear and cause havoc.
When the few remaining characters decide to battle the villain I was expecting some action movie type of climax. They go to her lair, find her true form, fight it, one of them sacrifices themselves, and they find a way to kill it once and for all. But instead what happened was so completely different and original that I thought to myself (for real) “they’re going to fail. She’s going to beat them.” As they enter the room where she’s staying each of them then enters a dream like world that is unique to each of them. They’re thrown in the middle of conversations with friends and family – who are dead at this point – and are convinced that all of the events are fake. That they were asleep and kept muttering in their sleep about ghosts and the town. The ghost appears before each of them, and moments before exposing her true form is thwarted in one of the funniest, but cleverist ways I’ve ever read [spoiler alert] the older character Ricky, who is battling with a cold all book, gives an explosive sneeze. This sneeze catches all of their attention and snaps them all awake from their hallucinations. Once they’re aware of where they are, they kill her and finish (or at least they think they do) the hauntings throughout the town. [Spoiler ended] It was one of the most tense and creepy climaxes that didn’t use a lot of violence or anything flashy to get the job done. Rather it built the tension and made you so incredibly nervous that it wasn’t going to work that you felt like this you were going to lose your mind.
Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the movie – nor had I ever heard of it before starting this list. I didn’t want that to be my entire blurb about this book so rather than just saying that…..I read the synopsis on Wikipedia……Needless to say I think I’m happy with my choice. I’m not one to care if they change stuff from the book to the movie, sometimes I get it and don’t think it’s a huge deal. Like if they made Harry Potter left handed instead of right handed I couldn’t care less. But when directors so drastically change the plot, characters, events and the overall story then yes I’m annoyed *ahem* The Shining *ahem* . After reading the synopsis of the movie that’s exactly what they did. The book starts off with all the characters having nightmares as a result of the fifth member of their group (who’s dead when the book starts) having died a year earlier, his name was Edward Wanderley and he was a writer. In the movie he’s alive, the fourth member of the group (there’s no mention of the fifth who was my favourite character), and he’s the mayor of the town? Explain what possible purpose that serves and why it was necessary to change it. The story is entirely different, it was as if the director’s friend read the book, told him about it once and the director decided he’d make the movie from what he could remember of this single encounter. “Let’s see…old men, ghosts, winter. I think that pretty much sums it up?” it reminds me of when you hear a joke from the third person that’s heard it and you say “wait I don’t get it” cause they told it wrong. It got filtered so many times that by the end it’s not even the same joke. That’s what the film’s synopsis told me as I read it and said “did the director even read or understand this book?” I think there’s a reason the book is one of the staples in horror literature and the movie is rated 31% on rotten tomatoes. I might still watch it, even though I’m sure I won’t like it, but this way I can at least say I’ve seen the film adaptations of all the books on my list.
It’s a slow start, it’s not going to grip your attention from the very first page and even late in the book you’ll have a slow chapter or two. But READ IT! Please read it, it was absolutely terrifying and left me unsettled so many times. I truthfully had nightmares while reading it and basically read the final act without a break because I had to know how it ended. It’s a fun book to read even if you don’t like horror (that is unless you don’t like horror because it scares you too much) and if you do love horror then you will love it! So far it’s been my favourite of the paranormal genre of this list. I’ll have to see where it lands in the end when I do my overall rankings.
Up next is Bret Easton Ellis’ classic, American Psycho! I felt the need to take a break from ghosts for a bit so we’ll see how it goes!