Houses on Borderlands

The House by Bentley Little (1999): A straightforward, meat-and-potatoes horror writer stylistically, Little tends to be innovative in terms of his subject matter and his approach to it. Magic and the supernatural can be jarringly weird in his novels, even as they also inspire more normative thrills and chills.

I don’t know if Little has taken the conversation about what real absolute evil would look like in Arthur Machen’s pivotal century-old story “The White People” as his model (real absolute evil would be a complete violation or inversion of accepted natural law: roses singing, or stones walking, for example), but the effect is sometimes the same. Though there’s lot of more normal supernatural and natural horrors in The House as well.

We begin with four bizarre, seemingly supernatural and seemingly fatal occurences. Then we meet five seemingly disparate people from across the United States who turn out to have very similar memories of their weird and scary childhood homes, even though none of them lived in the same house. For the most part, they’ve repressed those childhood memories, and never gone home again. But now they have to go home again. Supernatural events have started to occur across America, and those childhood experiences somehow explain why.

Little is a dab hand at sympathetic characterization, even with characters who turn out to be increasingly unsympathetic as a novel progresses. It’s that characterization that holds the novel together through its oddities and idiosyncrasies. The absolute weirdness of many of the supernatural events goes too far for scares at times (a rose in a block of cheese being the least scarifying of these things), a problem shared with another Little novel, The Return. But there are also many effectively horrifying bits, along with an adversary who really does make one squeamish whenever it appears.

Little’s skill at plotting is also at work throughout — the narrative rockets along, and while one may be underwhelmed by certain inventions, one won’t stop reading. There’s no poetry here, just muscular prose and invention that sometimes gets a bit out of control.

Little’s tendency to two word titles can make it difficult to remember what novel is what — this plain-style stuff can go too far, though calling a collection of short stories The Collection is pretty funny, given the number of The [Something] novels that preceded the publication of The Collection. Oh, well. Recommended.

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