Thanks to NetGalley and to Flame Tree Press for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
I have read great reviews of this author’s books, all in the horror genre, and a recent one (by Char Horror, whose reviews I follow on BookLikes) convinced me to read one of his novels. I was lucky enough to find it on offer at NetGalley, and yes, the reviewers were right. It is a book worthy of reading.
It is difficult to review this book without giving too much of the plot and possible spoilers away. If I had to define this book, I’d say it is a love letter. I know it might sound strange when we are talking about a horror book, but there you have it. Of course, there are many elements of horror as well, but from reading some of the comments I guess this is a far cry from the author’s usual romp-and-munch monster books (or “cryptozoological”, as he defines them). There is a monster, well, a creature, although it comes in quite late in the book (we do feel some dark presence well before that, though), but this is a story that starts as a domestic drama and shares many of its elements. The protagonists, Kate and Andrew, are a young couple. Their life is completely taken by the wife’s chronic autoimmune and genetic illnesses (Ehlers-Danlos and lupus) and what it takes to keep her alive. She is a virtual prisoner at home and most of the time she struggles to even get out of bed. Her husband has a job but spends most of his spare time looking after his wife, and the rest of the time thinking about her. They have a dog, Buttons, who keeps watch over Kate, and she survives thanks to cocktails of pain relief medications, experimental treatments that bring on their own kind of hell, watching black and white movies and the support of her husband. When he manages to secure a few weeks off and a cottage by a lake in Maine, they both hope they will have a reprieve and a break from real life. Unfortunately…
The book, written in the third person, alternates the points of views of wife and husband, and the author is very skilled at describing the feelings of the couple, the effects of the illness, both physical and psychological (although Kate is the perfect example of the unreliable narrator, due to her illness and the pain-killers and other medications she takes, she is very articulate and finds ways to explain her symptoms that make us share in her suffering more vividly than many scare books) on both, and the toll it takes on a relationship to have to battle with such terrible monsters day-after-day. Yes, there are “real” monsters and also the illness, which is more monstrous, in many ways, than any monster, because it lives inside and it feeds off the person, literally. It is evident on reading it that the author has close and deep knowledge of the subject, and this is confirmed later in the afterword, which I found very moving.
The characters, which include the couple, Kate’s brother, Riker, and British sister-in-law, Nikki, are sympathetic, likeable, but also realistically portrayed, especially the central couple. If at times Andrew seems almost saintly in his patience and never-ending acceptance of his caring role, there are times when he gives way to anger, frustration, and a touch of egotism and selfishness. He also acknowledges that after so long battling with his wife’s illness, he might no longer know how to be anything else but her husband and carer. Kate is in and out of medication-induced slumber, at times hides things from Andrew, is not always wise and takes unnecessary risks, at least from her husband’s perspective. Theirs is not a perfect relationship, but considering the strain they labour under, it is pretty amazing in its strength and solidity.
The novel is claustrophobic despite its location and the brief excursions into nature. We are mostly reduced to the inside of the house/cottage, and to a single room most of the time, and that adds to the feeling of anxiety and tension that increases slowly but ramps up towards the end of the story. I kept thinking about Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game because of the location, and the way the story plays with the power of the mind to conjure up ghosts and monster from the dark recesses of our consciousness, but the background and the central theme are very different.
What about the creature? I am sure readers of horror will wonder from early on what the nature of that presence is. At first we have unexplained attacks on the couple and they do try to find rational explanations to allay their fears (and at some points, it looks as if the story is going to bear off into home invasion ground), but eventually, a not-easy-to-explain-away-rationally creature appears. What this creature is and where it comes from is something you can decide for yourselves, although there are clear indications and even explanations offered during the novel that make sense within the context. I did suspect what might be behind it from quite early on, but it is very well done and it fits into the logic of the story (however we might feel about horror and its hidden meaning).
Now, some notes of caution. There is a scene where the characters exchange jokes in poor taste, which might offend readers (yes, even horror readers), and although people in extreme situations might find refuge in pretty dark humour, there are topics that many people find disturbing. There is also quite extreme gore and explicit violence, although I don’t think that would put off fans of the genre.
As mentioned, this is not a standard horror book and it might be enjoyed by readers interested in domestic drama, chronic illnesses, and great writing, if they have a strong enough stomach to deal with the gore. There are also questions and answers at the end that would make the book suitable for book clubs interested in the genre and the central topic. Although I know this is not perhaps a typical example of Shea’s writing, I am impressed and intend to catch up on some of his other books, and his podcast. Hats off to him for his bravery in tackling this difficult subject, and I hope it was as therapeutic for him as he states.