- Multiple Narrative
- Third Person Limited
- Short Chapters
- Epistolary (in places)
- Character Arc
I first heard of Ania Ahlborn in the highly recommended section of The Best Horror of the Year 2015 anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow so I added one of her novels to my TBR list. She cropped up again on the This Is Horror Podcast—which if you are a horror fan, I highly recommend listening to—and after hearing her talk about writing, it cemented her place on my TBR. Her novel, Within These Walls, finally worked its way to the top of my TBR and now I’m sure she will become a firm fixture on there because I loved this novel.
A has-been, true-crime author, Lucas Graham, thinks his life is going down the toilet: his wife is having an affair, his book sales are pitiful, and his relationship with his teenage daughter is becoming strained.
When he receives a letter from the notorious Jeffrey Halcomb, who is currently serving a life sentence for multiple murders and suicides, which offers Halcomb’s story exclusively to Lucas in exchange for Lucas packing up his life and moving into 101 Montlake Road, Pier Pointe, Lucas agrees. This is his chance to make his family proud and maybe get his wife back, with the money he earns from what is sure to be a bestselling story.
The only snag is that the house is the scene of a grizzly mass-suicide and murder; the place where Jeffrey Halcomb’s notoriety came to a head. Sure, there have been some horrible deaths in the house, but Lucas is a logical person, a house is just bricks and mortar (or timber and cladding, whatever tickles your pickle). That’s all. Isn’t it?
Well, this is a supernatural horror novel, so Lucas is in for a bit of a wake-up.
Notes on the Craft:
Ahlborn uses quite short chapters to break up the story which gives the novel more of a thriller pacing. At the end of each chapter, she leaves the reader with questions in mind that need answering—a hook, if you will—or she hints at a big revelation that is to come and then she will switch to a different viewpoint character so we are left on tenterhooks waiting to see what will happen.
The story is told from the past—from the viewpoint of Audra Snow, one of Halcomb’s victims—heading forwards towards the “sacrament”, and also from the present—through the eyes of Lucas Graham and his daughter Virginia—and Ahlborn somehow manages to weave these narratives together so they meet in the climax despite being set at different times.
Throughout the novel, Ahlborn weaves in news clippings and paranormal investigation reports which, again, give the reader a break from the main narratives at the most crucial moments. The news clippings fill in the gaps in the backstory of Jeffrey Halcomb and his followers, and the investigation reports give an insight into the kinds of experiences previous tenants of 101 Montlake Road have had, and these give little hints of what is in store for Lucas and his daughter.
Ahlborn writes her viewpoint characters in third person limited and deftly gives us the internal monologue of each character. She uses the same technique that David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks) wonderfully describes as the “Thought Hat, and one character per chapter wears the Thought Hat, and only the character who wears the Thought Hat’s thoughts can the reader hear.”
The main character arc—more of a slope than an arc—is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: The main character, who is just about holding their life together, steps out of their comfort zone in the hopes that it will shake up the monotony and will improve their life. They begin the story nervous, but excited. Gradually, being in the house changes the character, making them paranoid, suspicious, and obsessive.
Ahlborn’s easy to read style and thriller pacing make this the kind of book you will want to devour in one sitting, and I am sure this will become a horror classic. I loved this book so much that, upon finishing it, I immediately went out and bought her latest novel, The Devil Crept In, and I have a feeling she will be a regular on my TBR list.