i was offered an e-ARC of this book and encouraged to go in blind. i read the synopsis, obviously, to make sure it was within my (admittedly very broad) reading tastes, and from that, i gathered that it was a locked-room mystery with a twist: a young girl’s body is found on the premises of a swiss hotel that is still standing in the aftermath of a nuclear war that has destroyed most of the world, leaving twenty people struggling to make sense of this altered global landscape and now also a murrrrderrrrrr.
the blurbs name-dropped Stephen King, Agatha Christie, The Girl With All the Gifts, Annihilation, calling it “nightmarish,” a”dystopian psychological thriller,” “haunting;” a combination that made me think this was going to be Clue + The Shining + The Road, and that’s a big old ball of YES PLEASE for karen.
do those blurbs accurately convey the tone and content of this book? weeeeellllll… again, i was encouraged to go in blind, and i don’t want to make decisions for anyone else, but mother nature gave us spoiler tags, so imma use them. not to talk about any *actual* plot spoilers, but to share more broadly what this book feels like to read; which expectations were met by the readalikes and which were not. so, it will be tonal spoilers only.
to click or not to click? think of it this way: say you saw the trailer for The Cabin in the Woods and thought – ooh – a horror movie! and then you watched The Cabin in the Woods and realized it was just pretending to be a horror movie. did you feel:
A) misled and cranky
C) what’s The Cabin in the Woods?
if A, view spoiler. if B, do not view spoiler. if C, put down that book, ya nerd!
so.View Spoiler »1) this book is not scary. not even a little bit. i’m not sure why it tries to set up a spooky vibe early on, and why the blurbs perpetuate this fallacy with their Stephen King & co. shenanigans. it does take place in a hotel, like The Shining (or like Security, for that matter), and the stress of isolation and the END OF THE WORLD does make some people behave erratically or act out of desperation, but it’s not ghost twinsies and shriveled bathtub ladies, it’s ordinary human panic. because the end of the world is scary, especially when you’re far from home: you’re stuck in a hotel with a bunch of strangers who don’t even share a common language, you don’t know who can be trusted, you can’t contact your loved ones so you fear the worst, you have no idea what fresh hells are still to come…layering on a supernatural stressor on top of that would have been some excellent intense icing, and the seeds of mayyyyybe haaaauuunnted were certainly planted:
“What interested you about the history of the hotel?”
“Well, you know this hotel has a pattern of suicides and unexplained deaths. Even a couple of murders in the eighties and nineties. The most recent owners are pretty shady, hard to pin down. The place has been sold and resold a lot due to bad press. Also because a famous serial killer stayed once. My work, well…what I was planning to spend my time in the hotel doing was. mostly write biographies of the people who died here.”
I sometimes feel that there might be more people in the hotel than we know about. It is such a huge place. It plays on my mind. And it’s a very noisy building, a lot of bangs and bumps in the night.
i’m not saying i begrudge the attempt – ambiguity is always welcome here; for a while i was enjoying the shiverylicious The Silent Land/House of Leaves vibes from this, and the sheer number of times characters voiced the “maybe we’re all already dead” idea was like a siren’s song, but when nothing spooky ever actually developed, it was clutter without consequence.
2) this book is not a mystery. not really. there is a dead body, there are suspicious people, there are secrets and red herrings and misdirection. the protagonist investigates, in his own way, who killed the girl, but this is not the novel’s primary concern, and the thread is dropped for a large chunk around the book’s midsection.
so what is this book? thematically, it is more like Station Eleven than anything mentioned above. its focus is largely upon establishing connections and retaining humanity, or not, in the wake of a cataclysmic event. it is very much about people. not people-as-murder-suspects, but what people feel and how they interact; it’s about regret, forgiveness, kindness, society, law, responsibility, making peace with the past, overcoming the barriers of language and culture, political ideologies, what we owe each other as members of the same species, etc, but also what happens when desperation incites violence.
for me, the horror/mystery detours didn’t contribute anything except confusion once the book settled into its more sociological track. a book with this line:
The only meaning we might have left as a species – indeed the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning – is in the small acts of human kindness we show each other, and in my compulsion to be helpful, useful, to keep things moving forward, I’ve mostly forgotten to be kind.
ain’t never going to be a horror novel.
there’s violence, yes – many different kinds of it, but anything remotely supernatural-feeling is redirected. if anything, it’s humanist horror, as one character claims: An absence of meaning: that would be the scariest of all things. it also quotes Graham Greene, muses on individual freedoms and community responsibilities and argues whether suicide is an option. for many it is, but not for our guide through this situation:
The thought had occurred to me once or twice: would killing myself really be that bad, considering? Did I want to see where we – and humanity as a whole – ended up? Did I want to see how much worse things got before they – if they – ever got better?
But the idea always repelled me. As long as I could continue to be useful, I’d stay. I wouldn’t voluntarily throw my life away. I’d never think badly of those who decided it was too much, because it was. It is too much. But I could have been in San Francisco when those bombs fell, I could have been in Mississippi with my parents, and I was in neither. I had ended up in one of the few places that escaped total devastation, and the idea of creating more by giving in to despair seemed ungrateful somehow.
the thing is, the end of the world doesn’t need additional bells and whistles to keep a reader’s interest. the aftermath is enough. the mystery plot resolves in a fine-but-too-coincidental and certainly not “fair play” manner, but the spooky atmosphere was not needed, sez me « Hide Spoiler
so, that’s what the book is and is not. did i like it? i did. mostly. it meanders a bit, as i’ve mentioned to those of you who went to spoilertown, but for the most part, it achieves its goals of what-iffing the apocalypse and showing how miscommunication, paranoia and sectional alliances can be pretty darn destructive. and nukes. also destructive.
the only other thing i struggled with is a completely personal gripe that i’m mentioning strictly as a self-reminder should i ever need to catalog my own aversions.
the world we live in is fucked. and it’s an especially embarrassing time to be an american. but i have a personal squicky discomfort when contemporary political elements creep into my escapist entertainment.
there’s something off-putting to me about reading this book, whose end-of-world scenario was clearly brought about by our great orange shame, where a character who voted for him is berated by others as complicit to this end-of-world scenario and it basically turns into any day on twitter – vitriolic, divisive, unproductive, issue-laden. it’s completely me and my problem – i had the same reaction to American Horror Story: Cult, and even The Good Fight, although it was used in a much more organic n’ humorous way there.
i think my problem is when what’s already bad is made worse for entertainment; an alarmist spear poking me in the place i’m turning to as an escape.
we know it’s bad. trust me, we are all fully alarmed. the news already feels like a horror movie, i don’t want my horror to feel like the news.
but that’s just me being feeling overwhelmed by how everything is falling apart. quick – raccoons!
three and a half
stars cats, rounded up.