by Alison Rumfitt
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication Date: October 29, 2021
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Three years ago, Alice spent one night in an abandoned house with her friends, Ila and Hannah. Since then, Alice’s life has spiraled. She lives a haunted existence, selling videos of herself for money, going to parties she hates, drinking herself to sleep.
Memories of that night torment Alice, but when Ila asks her to return to the House, to go past the KEEP OUT sign and over the sick earth where teenagers dare each other to venture, Alice knows she must go.
Together, Alice and Ila must face the horrors that happened there, must pull themselves apart from the inside out, put their differences aside, and try to rescue Hannah, whom the House has chosen to make its own.
This is not your standard haunted house book. I don’t even know how to start describing this book, other than to say it’s raw and powerful and frightening. There are some serious, serious content warnings and it’s an absolutely horrific read at points. It’s unsettling, nauseating and thought-provoking look at a trans woman in England surrounded by TERFs and fascism.
Before the night in the house, Alice, a trans woman, and Ila were friends with benefits. But while they and their friend Hannah enter it, only Alice and Ila leave, both believing the other subjected them to horrific abuse. In the aftermath, Ila has become a well-publicized TERF and Alice is barely able to function. But they’re both bound by what they suffered, and perhaps the only way to free themselves is to return the house that started it all.
If there’s one word to describe this book, it’s trauma, it’s all about trauma. Told from Alice, Ila and the house’s perspective, it’s a sort of gothic horror that draws on classic horror stories as well as today’s anonymous online discourse. Alice comes off as highly sympathetic and extremely traumatized. Holding down a steady job is hard, so she makes ends meet by selling sexual videos of herself saying trans slurs. That image of a trans woman denigrating herself for money was sad and shocking, but also somehow powerful. Something, I’m hoping, like the author felt as they incorporated their experiences into this book. “I have to believe…” Alice says several times, reminding herself that she’s more than her trauma, but even at the start it seems like that trauma – like the House – is winning.
Ila was at first a harder sell for me. We first meet her while she’s speaking at a TERF meeting, and she seems so diametrically opposed to Alice’s character that it feels impossible to like one without hating the other. But what the book excels at is revealing how Ila’s actions are as much a response to trauma as Alice’s, that neither is as different as they seem. Perhaps, in Ila’s case, the trauma goes deeper than she’s willing to admit.
And the house, oof. Like I said before, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill haunted house book. In a lot of ways, it’s the commonplace, non-fantastical things that are the most horrifying. The house is every mocking 4chan discussion, every indication that violent fascism has been baked into England past, that it’s a feature, not a bug. It’s set in England and written by a British writer, so I’m sure there’s plenty of cultural references I’m missing, but the themes are timely and sadly apply to America as much as England. Wokeness for brownie points, empty of empathy for the people supposedly being protected, empty tombs full of click bait headlines designed to spur outrage and stop rational thought. It’s Brexit and colonialism and racism and xenophobia and how deceptively innocuous they can seem when they start and spread.
Reading the book is an experience as well. It’s very stream of consciousness at points (I think there was one page without a single punctuation mark) which, for me, increased the visceralness of it. The book also quotes or riffs on other media, with several I recognized (“Jerusalem” and “The Haunting of Hill House”, for instance) and I’m sure plenty I missed. It’s a format that I’ve frankly tried to read before and bounced off quickly but it works so well (horrifically?) in this book.
It’s hard to say much more without ruining the book. While it was an uncomfortable reading experience at times due to the content warnings, this was a truly worthwhile book and one I’ve thought of frequently since I finished it. If you’re a horror fan, I highly recommend this! Also if you enjoy books written by trans authors about their experiences!
Content notes: View Spoiler »