If you die out in the open, before you are ready, they will find you and take you away”
‘They Don’t Come Home Anymore: a Novella’ continues the fine run of quality horror fiction currently being published by ‘This is Horror’ and Ted Grau’s debut release for them is a first rate companion piece to Josh Malerman’s ‘A House at the Bottom of a Lake’ which hit the shelves on Halloween. I stepped into this very entertaining novella deliberately blind, knowing nothing of the plot and am pleased to say I was enthralled until the very last page. Actually, I pretty much read this enticing little story in one sitting and late into the night. Did it take me where I was expecting it to take me? No, and that’s much of the fun of reading great dark fiction; the plot often weaves into unexpected areas.
It was well worth the late night as Grau weaves a clever tale of teenage loneliness and obsession when friendless Hettie develops an unhealthy interest in the most popular girl in her school, Avery. This manifests itself after a chance encounter in a secluded school toilet where Hettie is surprised to discover Avery a tad worse for wears. The popular girl has her own demons and sickness has kept her from school, but she unexpectedly confides in Hettie “you might be the only friend I’ve got” whilst lying slumped on the toilet. An unguarded moment which has major plot ramifications. A short whilst later Avery is in hospital, seriously ill, a coma follows, but Hettie now believes the other girl is her best friend and sets out on a dangerous journey to save the life of the girl who in the simplest terms does not know she exists. To say much more about the plot would ruin the journey, and it is a bit of an odyssey, so watch out for spoilers in other reviews. Suffice to say, she will do anything, whatever the price.
There was much to enjoy in this sharply woven tale and I thought Grau told the story very convincingly through the eyes of a teenage girl who was incredibly lonely and through a very brief conversation developed an overpowering obsession which may have laid dormant for years. Hettie and Avery had shared school classes all their lives, if only at different ends of the popularity spectrum, one invisible to the other. The earlier parts of the story were deliberately and cleverly fragmented to distort the supernatural elements which appear later in the novella. So read the obscure beginning carefully as it connects neatly to the end. The reader picks up quickly that Hettie is unbalanced, but the author plays out the extent and why of this very skilfully, throwing the odd breadcrumb here and there until the very cool ending.
The quest of Hettie to save Avery, the second half of the novella effectively, was as quirky as it was entertaining as Hettie meets an assortment of odd characters who either help or hinder her ‘quest’ including a dodgy goth shop owner, a bestselling horror writer and a couple of others. The reader gets the impression she travels miles and miles into unknown territory, or further into the city that she does not know nearly as well as she thinks she does. Or is it simply suburbia? At the same time she was a pretty engaging character and even though a few curve balls are thrown into the journey, she sure shows some real spunk, no matter how misguided.
School goes on in the background and Avery is generally and cruelly forgotten by most of her classmates as her condition worsens and new leaders need to be found. At the same time I also enjoyed how the author cleverly sketches the odd relationship Hettie has with her fairly liberal parents who don’t know her half as well as they think they do. It has also has some pretty powerful flashback scenes, whether Hettie’s parents are truly aware of her lack of friends or whether they choose to turn a blind eye is hinted at by the mother referring to her “imaginary friends”. One particularly powerful flashback scene sees a young Hettie dropped off at Avery’s birthday party, which she hadn’t been invited to, but pretends to have been.
Grau is best known as a writer of horror and dark fiction short stories which often branch into other genres and the ‘This is Horror’ site has a great recent podcast in which he discusses the freedom he found in writing this longer form of prose and his move away from Lovecraftian horror of which he wrote much of earlier in his career. The podcast complimented reading this excellent novella very well and mentions the debut novel Ted is in the early stages of writing, a book I’d certainly be interested in reading.