By Ania Ahlborn
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub. Date: April 21, 2015
Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars
Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn is an intriguing hybrid of psychological horror and haunted house tale. Both sub-genres are favorites of mine. What Within These Walls does so well is to bring them together in a novel that spans a thirty year period with complex characters and interactions. Most of the book takes place in a house where true crime author Lucas Graham and his 12 year old daughter Virginia temporarily resides. Yet it is not so much the allegedly haunted house that scares us but the mass murderer who has convinced Lucas to move into the scene of his crimes. In many ways, it is Lucas who is haunted. He is a true crime writer with a couple of best sellers and a long streak of nothing. His marriage is teetering on the edge of divorce and it is affecting his daughter who has taken a liking to the dark and the occult. Cult leader and killer Jeffrey Halcomb is giving him the opportunity to interview him for a book but the price of admission is to live in the house where the murders took place thirty years ago. What happens next is a nightmare that threatens to destroy Lucas and his family and may revitalize the terror that was spread by Halcomb.
Lucas is not necessarily the most likable person but he is troubled by the most common challenge of just living and succeeding. It lends an air of believability when he takes resident in a house that would send most tenants fleeing in terror. The author Ania Ahlborn knows that desperation and insecurity can be more terrifying than the most awful demon and the most eerie ghost. Ahlborn is a skilled writer who realizes horror is more terrifying when you are immersed in the characters and slowly drawn to the scares rather than hit in the head by the proverbial hammer. The author uses alternating time lines to tell her story; the current time where Lucas is trying to make his comeback and ends up accepting a deal with a killer, and 30 years earlier at the time of Halcomb’s cult and its murders. In this narration of a previous time, we are introduced to Audra/Avis who becomes our focal point as we discover how and why the killings took place. Halcomb and his followers are not based on any actual murder but seems to be a loose mix of Charles Mansion and Jim Jones. But the strength in this tale is that Halcomb often feels like a enigma. We get no direct look at Halcomb in the present age but he learn about what the young 80s Halcomb was like through the eyes of Audra. We follow the insecure Audra as she struggles with her role in this perverse family. That is what I really liked about this story. That in both timelines it is the potential victim that brings us anxiety and scares. Villains are fun and Jeffrey Halcomb is an imposing villain but in this engrossing novel we connect with the victims with their strange but recognizable hopes and fear.
Lots of strange thing happen in this haunted house and there are plenty of shocks for the horror fan. But overall the psychological horror genre wins out and that is fine with me. Ahlborn deals in the more quiet and haunting chills and while she doesn’t shy away from violence especially at the end, it is not what keeps the reader. It is the cold and deep chills that keep us reading. Within These Walls stays with you. The characters stay with you. Ahlborn’s meaty horror novel succeeds not just for the scares but as a psychological study of persons desperately and tragically seeking their role in life and ending in a nightmare. For that reason, it comes highly recommended.