Friday, November 4, 2016

A quiet and eerie look at first love

A House at the Bottom of a Lake

By Josh Malerman

Publisher: This is Horror

Pub Date: October 31, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Josh Malerman is quickly cementing his reputation as one of the best and most original horror writers on the scene. His first novel, Bird Box constructed almost literally a horror out of nothing and gave a new meaning to the term "see no evil" as its protagonists' fear of seeing created a haunting agoraphobia. In his new novella, A House at the Bottom of a Lake, we have a even quieter but still original horror tale that somehow serves as a setting for one of the most non-horror themes you can find. First love.

Shy and awkward teenagers Amelia and James are going on their first date. It's an inspired idea of James to take her canoeing on an secluded lake. While canoeing, they discover there is a path to another lake that is even more secluded. At the bottom of this lake is a intact two story house. What begins as a novelty to the two teens become an obsession but one that is welcomed as they swim down to the house to explore. Each visit bonds one to the other as well as to the eeriness of the house.

And that is what makes this tale so brilliant. This house at the bottom of a lake, at least the house as Malerman described it, is an impossible thing. We know that good rarely comes out of something so unusual and sudden. In other words, it is probably a lot like our first love. At the beginning our two protagonists, when they decide to return to explore the house via scuba gear, agree not to question the "why" and "how" of such a house lest it loses its wonder. Does that sound like a good rule for something else? The novella feels a bit like an analogy to me but what the analogy means is slightly elusive, the way I believe the author wants it to be. Perhaps the author also doesn't want us to question the hows and whys either and, when we inevitably do, he throws a twist at the end that makes us rethink it all.

So what is the house all about? What is the horror part of this novel? That is the part that needs to remain unsaid unless the readers loses the wonder of the reading before they even start. Malerman has a distinct poetic feel that works well in this story. The two teenagers are well rounded enough to feel familiar to us. The first love scenario is one of those baits that brings out the dreamer in us and maybe a bit of nostalgia. When the fear hits, we are already invested in the characters. Both Bird Box and this one works so well because they are character driven horrors. The real terror remains elusive but what it does to the imagination is where it is really at.

You are probably not surprised when I say I recommend this novella...highly. It is a fast and easy read but it deceptively complex and even hopeful perhaps. In fact, it would be a great horror book for those who claim they don't like horror. It is certainly destined for my list of top ten books of the year.

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