Published by This Is Horror on October 31st 2016
This novella has a simple boy-meets-girl plot, but the love story is wrapped in some sinister forces befitting a horror story. It’s a testament to the skills of author Josh Malerman that this tale somehow successfully navigates between a quaint story of mild-mannered ghosts and the gruesome gore that seems to always find young lovers near lakes.
We first meet James, a teenager who works in his father’s hardware store, just before he meets Amelia, who comes to buy a hose but forgets that when James asks her on a date. Through short, fast chapters written from each teenager’s point of view, we see how nervous and awkward the two feel about themselves and their date as they head out on a canoe to explore a lake.
The first lake is connected to a second, and the second is connected by some kind of drainage tunnel to a third. This hidden lake is not as attractive as the first two except for the fact that is deserted, and James and Amelia discover their common ground–a shared interest in exploration. While paddling about they discover the house at the bottom of the lake. It is fully intact, furnished and ready for exploration. Of course they must go below to check it out. As the young protagonists visit each of the rooms and levels, it becomes clear that something else inhabits their life-sized play house.
The dread in this novella spins out in a long and slow and kind of dreamy way that sidetracks the protagonists, but not readers. Any reader attuned to the unnatural is going to be intrigued, and if you’re like me, someone who deeply distrusts deep water, the story will put on the edge of your last nerve. The young lovers, however, are obsessed not distressed about the house under water. Malerman, who’s also the author of the novel The Bird Box, makes this tale exceed expectations by revealing telling facets of each character’s personality and the huge disconnect between the characters’ perceptions of the house and the reader’s perceptions.
The dialogue is strong and smart. James and Amelia are teenagers vulnerable to the many questions and fears that rule their world, but they are also trying to impress each other, and both demonstrate unique traits that make them very believable. James, for example, is more practical, but he’s also a follower. Amelia goes into new situations, quite literally, headfirst.
The teenagers’ love story is treated gently and touched with a bit of nostalgia. I thought I knew where the story was going right up until the end, which I thought was a little too precious, but something wasn’t adding up and I read it again. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that I found the ending satisfying and befitting a horror story. James and Amelia may have left the lake, but the lake experience has not left them.
One final note: Here’s a shout out to Pye Parr for the fantastic cover art on this little book. It’s appropriately eerie, a little wistful, yet modern–just like the story.
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