Sep 4, 2012

The Haunted - Bentley Little

The Haunted
Author: Bentley Little
Publisher: Signet
Publication Date: April 3, 2012

I had always intended to check out more of Bentley Little's work after having read The University and then The Mailman a few years ago. Here was a man unafraid to play with novel concepts, a sentient collection of buildings in the first case and a malevolent, supernatural mailman in the second. I found both novels refreshing in how these bizarre, potentially absurd ideas were presented in all seriousness and mined with a unflinching regard for every ounce of visceral horror that could be teased out of them. The more I thought about The Mailman over the years the more I came to realize how inspired it is. So when I finally got around to picking up another of Little's novels choosing (at random) The Haunted, I was surprised to discover that it was his take on a well worn, very traditional subject. A family finds itself in peril after moving into a haunted house. That's pretty much it. No real surprises. This is not necessarily a bad thing, there is no shame in going with a classic, I was just expecting something weirder.

The Perrys are a nice, normal family living in a neighbourhood undergoing economic decline. They head off for greener pastures only to find themselves saddled with an ancient evil that has taken up residence in their otherwise lovely home. To be fair, the ancient evil was actually there first and the house built up around it. In any case, the two are a package deal and as the lewd text messages, horrible nightmares and other increasingly threatening manifestations begin to mount the potential resale value of the property plummets and the Perry's begin to fear for their sanity and their very lives. Not entirely unlike problems faced by many homeowners these days.

insert supernatural horror down here

It is possible to write an entire novel of supernatural manifestation in which the question of the reality of the manifestation is left open to interpretation. The Haunted is not that kind of novel. It's closer in spirit to films like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist than novels like The Haunting, the evil in the Perry's house is bold and presents a tangible physical threat as well as a psychological one. It is also not shy about announcing it's presence to the world at large, crashing a housewarming party roughly midway through the novel and freaking out the Perry's neighbours. The build up is quick, Little's prose is lean and to the point conveying a sense of urgency and rapidly mounting danger. His characters and the family dynamics between them are well drawn giving us likable people to root for. The relationship between the father and his nerdy son is particularly well handled, it is the emotional heart of the novel which sets the story in motion and is the engine which drives it. This becomes more clear as we learn about a tragic event in the father's past.

The novel is far from a slow burn. This is somewhat to the book's detriment as the strongest element is the dread built up concerning what might be waiting in the corner of the basement. Once this is revealed, or rather, becomes less of a priority, some of the atmosphere is lost. Initially, the Perry's are terrorized to some degree in private, keeping their experiences to themselves but it isn't too long before they compare notes and all realize that something is out to get them. Of course once this happens, every second that they remain with their malevolent housemate potentially stretches credibility and the reader's sympathy. Little mostly sidesteps this problem with a few clever twists.

I'd recommend this for fans of fast paced supernatural horror. There are segments which can get under your skin while reading it, and maybe for a night or two after, but there isn't much here that is likely to stick with you long after that (maybe with the exception of the dirt eating bit which I found to be the most unsettling sequence of the novel). When the nature of the ancient evil is revealed, Little gives us a slight variation on the usual ghost story, but the idea isn't really developed all that much and doesn't approach the delightful strangeness that I have encountered in his previous work. Still, Little is a novelist worth following and The Haunted is an entertaining read.

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