Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: THE HARROWING by Alexandra Sokoloff

THE HARROWING by Alexandra Sokoloff (St Martins, 2006)

Reviewed by Grant Nicol

It’s Thanksgiving and all the residents of Baird College are going home for the holidays. All of them that is except for the disenfranchised and discarded boys and girls of the Mendenhall dorm. The five members of Sokoloff’s very own ‘Breakfast Club’ stick around in the dark, lonely rooms and empty corridors of the old building rather than heading home to households they no longer want to be a part of. It appears that for each of them a lonely four-day weekend in the deserted building is preferable to having to endure the torments of spending time with their respective families.

Martin, the overly-serious, studious and withdrawn Jewish law student is undoubtedly the brain of the outfit hiding himself away in the library hunched over law books in his self-imposed scholastic solitude. He would prefer no company at all to frivolous company and is more than happy to point this out to the others if not with words then with his body language and unmistakable withdrawal.

Patrick, the jock of the ‘club’is a stereotype and an enigma all at the same time. His princess girlfriend Waverly is one of the ones heading home for the break and he is happy to see the back of her. Yet for whatever reason he would rather stay and drink on his own instead of seeking out like-minded company elsewhere.

If there is a basket case in the group then it is definitely Robin Stone who starts the story off with an aborted suicide attempt with her roommate’s (Patrick’s girlfriend, Waverly) spare medication in the dark as soon as she thinks she’s alone. When she discovers that she’s not the only one hiding out in the building for the Thanksgiving break she hides the pills and attempts to cover up what she was about to do but still harbours a dark desire to die.

Then we have our two other outcasts to make up the five members of Sokoloff’s ‘club’. Cain, we’ll call him ‘the musician’, is a brooding, intellectually superior artist with a cynical heart and a mind to match. Lisa, we’re going to have to call her ‘the promiscuous one’ because I don’t think I should call her a slut. She is damaged and loathes many things in her life but probably herself most of all.

Five disparate individuals and highly unlikely allies thrust together by fate and boredom and loathing who ostensibly have nothing in common until they decide to sit around in the dark together after a power cut and share a few beers and joints. As you do. I certainly did a lot of that in the dark when I was their age. Despite their uneasy alliance they find themselves initiating a séance with the help of an unearthed Ouija board and a distinct lack of anything better to do.

Scepticism is slowly replaced by an uneasy feeling that they have really stumbled upon something and their lives soon begin to run in an agonizing parallel with the original users of the board. From here on in there is a comparison to be drawn with William Peter Blatty’s great novel of 1971 but to say anything more would be inappropriate and might get me in trouble in this life as well as the next.

The main problems that the characters face throughout the remainder of the story is finding a way to cooperate with each other. They are all just so different but that is the fun of what is basically a locked-room mystery with supernatural overtones. Only the room isn’t as singular or as locked as you might think.

Sokoloff does a great job of building tension between the characters as they attempt to navigate their way through a hazardous minefield of conflicts and arguments with each other, the tension between Lisa and her polar opposite Patrick being particularly delightful to watch unfold.

I actually read this over Thanksgiving in the middle of a really nasty stormin Reykjavík and for much of it I was actually there with them. Locked away in my 4th floor attic bedroom the banging windows, the flickering candlelight, the howling wind and pounding rain took me into the heart of their nightmare. Once alone in their brave new world their struggle to get on with each other is soon superseded by a struggle just to survive.

Haunting, engrossing and thoroughly spooky this is exactly what a horror story should be like.


Grant Nicol is a crime writer who lives in Reykjavik, Iceland. You can follow him on Twitter @GrantNicol1. 


1 comment:

  1. I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed it. She writes very good chilling ghost stories, with a palpable sense of the uncanny, the unknown, and evil, just outside and around the corner.....I usually get goosebumps at some point reading her stories. I'm happy you enjoyed this as much today!

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