WITHIN THESE WALLS BY ANIA AHLBORN
Over the past year I have read some excellent haunted house stores, and I have read some rather terrible haunted house stories. I have also been thinking about what makes a haunted house / ghost story great. And I think I may have found the answer. It's not the ghosts or the house that really matter, it is the human protagonists. Because a great ghost story or haunted house story is about more than just the things that go bump in the night. The good ones are metaphors for the broken hearted and the downright right broken. Just look at The Shining, or even two of the best haunted house novels out in the last six months, Adam Nevill's No one Gets Out Alive and Willie Meiklle's Tormentor. All of them are more about the journey that our broken protagonists take than any of the many things that go bump in the night.
Don't get me wrong, a good haunted house or ghost story also needs to have a great sense of claustrophobia, dread and menace, otherwise it is just another kitchen sink drama, which is something that Ania Ahlborn's magnificent Within These Walls could never been accused off.
Within These Walls has it all, a haunted house, a broken protagonist who has just figured out that his wife is having an affair, a difficult daughter, ghosts, things that go bump in the night, oh and a cult leader worthy of Barker's Nix. All held together in a prose that is genuine, beautiful and totally enthralling.
From the opening page you just know that you are in the hands of a writer who knows her craft. The story is preceded by a letter from Jeffrey Halcomb, and a series of newspaper clippings. These serve to snap the readers attention front and foremost, a perfectly executed hook that ensures you read on. However, it is when the story starts for real that the reader quickly realises that they are the presence of a master writer.
The opening chapter is a heartfelt look at the breakdown and fallout of a marriage. The sense of love tinged anger that is conveyed on the page is as honest a portrayal as you are likely to read all year. The conflicting feelings of love and hate that Lucas feels towards his wife allows the reader to really connect to him. You feel his anguish, and despair, and within a few paragraphs you become fully invested in him
"The overhead light cast shadows that veiled her eyes. For a flash of a second, she looked like that once-upon-a-time girl, the one he so desperately missed. "
Those two sentences almost reduced me to tears. It is the rich and powerful turn of phrase that Ania uses that sets this book apart from so many other haunted house stories. She doesn't need long winded descriptions to convey emotion, this reviewer gets the feeling that she is a writer who is aware of the fact that it is not just about the words you put down but about the words you don't put down.
Within These Walls utilises the dual time frame narrative to great effect, in the early parts of the novel, the cold bleakness of Lucas's wife and daughter is mirrored by the warm narrative of Audra as she first encounters the novel's monster. The way in which Ahlborn makes these initial historical chapters so warm and cuddly is a great counter point to present day happenings in the book. But beware even these chapters have a hidden darkness, what feel like throw away sentences when you first read them, slowly become dread filled hints at the terrors to come.
"they reminded her of circus clowns piling out of a tiny car, one after the other, a seemingly endless stream"
This is not a rushed novel, Ahlborn takes her time in building up the sense the dread, enticing the reader with a rich prose that never resorts to a cheap scare. Enticing the reader with the mystery of what is to come next as well as chilling the reader with a terrifying and realistic portrayal of a dangerous cult. Ahlborn intertwines the terror with a truthful look at the relationship between Lucas, his wife and his daughter, and frailty of self worth and the need for acceptance.
Everyone goes on about the book and writer you just have to read, ignore them and go and pick a copy of this book, you can thank me later.