It’s Thrift Store Finds time! What’s that, you ask? Picture a family dinner but your parents are skeletons, aunt Shelley worships Satan, and grandma keeps a killer kid named Charles on a leash under the table. In other words, this is the place where we talk about horror fiction from the recent past.
I’ve always had the utmost respect for haunted house horror writers. Writing is hard enough without tossing in the extra challenge of making an inanimate object terrifying.
And yet, a staggering amount of authors have pulled it off. Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Jay Anson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, the list goes on. How do they do it? How do they take the cornerstone of modern comfort and turn it into a compelling horror story that will leave even the most skeptical (me) checking under the bed?
While I’ll probably wrestle with this question for the rest of my life, I think the answer lies in the way the authors focus on character. Sure, the house they’re in is filled with ghosts, but the story is really about the character’s inner demons and how they’re confronted with those demons through the haunting.
The Overlook has ghosts, but Jack wasn’t exactly dealing with his drinking problem in a healthy way. Hill House is admittedly spooky, but is it any spookier than being bullied by your mother and sister and never given your own place in the world? I have no doubt the Amityville house was haunted, but the real-life monster there was a manipulative, abusive man who spun the pain he caused into a supernatural event.
Dana Brookins’ Soul Eater checks the boxes of a classic haunted house book: flawed characters, a run down town, skeptics, believers. And yet in classic mid-80s fashion, it still ends up marching to the beat of its own drum.
You’ll see what I mean.
Soul Eater begins when newspaperman Lobe Peters runs a cryptic headline in his daily paper. “HOUSE,” it says in big bold letters. But what could it mean? Well for Lobe it means a $200 cashier’s check, but it also means a mystery for the town. Whoever paid for the headline wasn’t big on explanations.
Everyone has a theory on what it means, but none more than Bobbie Topin, an outcast pre-teen who lives with his senile grandfather on the edge of town. Maybe the message has something to do with space aliens, he muses to Lobe.
But what starts as good fun for Bobbie quickly sours as more (and let’s face it, less fun) headlines start to appear. “Change the Apple-Shooter to a P and Add a Cut of Pork.” (???)
It turns out that these headlines are acting as a herald of sorts for a new construction project out in Pellam Woods (that’s what that headline up there is about, but let’s just move on). An anonymous person has decided to build a mansion. But they’re not just building any old mansion, they’re moving a mansion and rebuilding it board by board.
It doesn’t sit right with Bobbie. Something is wrong with the house. Evil. Maybe it’s that everything is just a little off center. Or maybe it’s the mysterious nature of its construction. Edgar Falls, after all was the type of town that “needed shadows” so that you don’t get “ too close a look at the peeling paint on houses, the rutted shutters, the patchy-grassed lawns.” Who would want to build a fine house out in crumby place like that?
Unfortunately, Bobbie is alone in his distaste. Nearly everyone else in town loves the house to the point of obsession. Each day huge groups of townspeople come to sit on the grass and watch the construction even though it’s directly next to a bog that makes the whole place smell like “spoiled salad.”
But they’re not just curious, they’re covetous. The town gossip Miss Penny doesn’t just admire the house (“Pure white. So white it hurt your eyes.”) she feels she’s owed it. “She deserved a house like that.” And she’s not the only one, nearly every citizen of Edgar Falls has a reason to claim ownership of the house. That is, everyone but Bobbie. He’s convinced there’s more to the house than white pain and iron fencing. “Something was there. Something that could do weird things to your mind. Something that snickered up staircases and slipperied up behind you and could make you do things . . .”
After a few more weeks of construction and the ominous death of one of the builders, the house is complete. That’s when the final headline arrives.
“The House is Yours.” You see, the house is meant as a thank you to Edgar Falls from a former resident. It’s to be used as a museum and meeting space, and there is clearly nothing at all weird about that.
How very nice.
Of course, we know better. There is something drawing people to this house. They don’t just like it, they need it. And what happens when need gets so strong it can’t be reasoned with? If you’re a horror fan, you already know.
While a bit uneven, Soul Eater understands that a haunted house story is about the wants of the characters. But instead of creating a creepy building and tossing her characters into it, Dana Brookins keeps most of the horror outside in the town of Edgar Falls. She’s less concerned with what the house is and more concerned with what it represents to a dying town filled with unhappy people. Hers isn’t a story about a haunted house. It’s a story of a haunted town. A town that every day becomes a little more forlorn, a little more ghostly.
This are no rattling chains or figures glimpsed through windows. Instead terror comes from each person’s dissatisfaction with their lives and the twisted ways they decide to try to claim new happiness.
The one frustration I had with the book was its overall approach. Brookins is a good line-by-line writer. Her prose is easy and effective (“He had walked with his nerves so tight his bones hurt”), but Soul Eater suffers from a lack of focus. A story about a soul-eating house is pure genre, which begs for a good, tight story told with efficiency. However, Brookins take a more literary approach, letting her tale wind down alleyways and linger in characters’ minds for pages and pages. Sure, we learn new things that help advance the plot, but not enough to make this meandering approach deserved.
If you’re a fan of freaky facades, a menacing mansions, and generally unsettling abodes, you’ll enjoy Soul Eater.
Thanks to Capricorn Literary, you won’t even have to dig through piles of paperbacks to find it. Get yours right here.
Thrift Store Finds: The House Next Door - PHANTASTIQA
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