“It’s a book that demands careful attentive reading but also impels the reader forward to each new revelation. The very definition of an unputdownable read.”
In recent years, there seems to have grown a division between what some see as old school, classic horror, and a more subtle, arthouse take on the genre. Though these delineations, and all shades in-between, have likely existed since horror began, perhaps the advent of social media has shone more of a light on them. And really, these things wax and wane, the popularity of one begetting others, the over-saturation of some leading to audience fatigue. This has played out more in film than in the literary world, but horror books have still seen a surge in works that look to the past for inspiration, while yet others seek to bring a fresh, literary take on proceedings. And then are those books, and writers, who manage to combine both sensibilities, and all points in-between.
All of which preamble brings us to the subject of this review, It Will Just be Us by Jo Kaplan. Ostensibly a haunted house story, that classic and well-trodden subgenre of horror, Kaplan promises to unseat reader expectations; first by the uniqueness of her setting, and second by the insertion of deeply human concerns with her fractured, flawed characters.
Wakefield Manor has stood for many years, built on the edges of a swamp around 1800. Its vast, labyrinthine structure is home only to Samantha Wakefield and her mother, Agnes, descendants of those who had the original house built. When Sam’s older sister Elizabeth arrives one stormy night (of course), heavily pregnant and needing a place to stay, it ushers in portents of doom and visions of horror.
From the off, Kaplan sets out her stall, mixing visions of the past with the present-day narrative. Told by Sam, our unreliable narrator—though we don’t know this at first—we are asked, in the opening paragraphs, to imagine a child wandering the upper corridors of the mansion. This child is Sam, and at first, we believe this to be mere memory. We watch as she pauses outside a locked door, telling us this room has been inaccessible since she remembers. Yet she is strangely fascinated. The memory, taking on the form of a dream, then postulates what might be on the other side of this door. “… agonies of ghostly lives playing out on a dusty stage … creatures … not merely vast but vastly alien … a black hole that invites the earth to leap inside to its death.” Although we won’t realise it till the end of the book, this passage is very telling.
As the scene progresses, with growing tension and anticipation as young Sam moves to look through the keyhole, the image suddenly dissolves when the sound of a doorbell rings out. Again, it’s not until further in the book that the reader (unless they’re more perceptive than this poor reviewer) realises the scene has literally dissolved. For the house appears able to store and repeat events like a three-dimensional projector. The classic interpretation of hauntings given an original spin. The doorbell heralds the arrival of Elizabeth, who has left her husband but won’t say why, not fully, not really. She is also far along with child. Immediately, we get the sense of a family with their own particular and historical tensions. Some of this comes from their interplay, some from what Sam tells us.
The writing in this book is masterful. Kaplan allows her characters to live and breathe, to act and speak like real people would. Yes, they are a little exaggerated perhaps, overly dramatic, but it suits the story and the setting. Wakefield Manor is as gothic as anything can be that exists in an American setting. You might say Southern Gothic, but there’s a sensibility and heritage here that goes further back. But it also mixes in modern, literary aspirations. And that’s not the only juggling act Kaplan performs. The novel doesn’t play out in a necessarily conventional way. The central story unfolds like a carefully constructed puzzle, each reveal adding to the overall picture. Mixed in with the main strand are Sam’s recollections and descriptions of events she’s witnessed the house repeat (sometimes over and over again). And yet no mere diversions or asides are these. They, as the narrative builds, add to the central story. In this, Kaplan builds her novel like an artist painting a picture piecemeal. In this, it is constructed the way the house has been; the original form added to bit by bit over the decades. She continually returns to previously introduced strands, adding to them, changing them, and threading in their significance. So too, are the characters painted this way. Snippets of their lives build up a fully realised picture, making them feel achingly real. It’s a stunning achievement, especially for an early novel.
There is so much going on in this book, but is never unwieldy or confusing. It’s also surprisingly short yet reads—and feels—like an epic. Partly this is the wealth of information and detail Kaplan manages to impart without overwhelming; that layering in chunks. It’s also because the book spans a couple of hundred years (and more, though you’ll have to read it to know what that means), though the primary concern is always with Sam and her family. And finally, though it has a deeply literary thrust—concerning itself with the internal landscape of Sam, her relationship to and with her family and the history of the house—it’s also completely, utterly terrifying. There are moments of serious unease in the book, passages that truly fill the reader with dread, especially when reading late at night. Some of this involves the memories the house projects, which appear almost randomly and unexpectedly. But much of it is due to the spectre that begins to stalk Sam, a faceless boy who she comes to believe is her unborn nephew. And moreover, it appears this person—who comes to her at different points in his life, but always bent on hurting her—might be able to move through time, affecting events in the past.
It would take a dozen reviews to unpack fully the amount of material this book offers. Already, this one has hit over 1,000 words yet has barely scratched the surface. There’s the swamp and its inhabitants; the witch who lives in the water; the strange locked room that may or may not be at the centre of the house; the decades of history of the house, its occupants over the years … Kaplan throws in enough material for a whole series (and wouldn’t that be fantastic?) yet never overwhelms the reader. It straddles various disciplines yet melds them with ease. It is both a traditional horror novel—with classic elements and tropes—and an innovative foray into something truly original. Here, there is personal trauma, classic horror of the haunted variety, and even cosmic horror. It’s a book that demands careful attentive reading but also impels the reader forward to each new revelation. The very definition of an unputdownable read. And when it’s over, and the final mystery has been revealed—well, as much as Kaplan wants to reveal—the urge is to begin reading again, to see what secrets were imparted early on but not fully understood. A wonderful book, dark and full of threat; but also full of wonder and imagination. This is a book that should be read far and wide, that no true fan of horror should miss.
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Paperback: 272 (pps.)
Release Date: 8 September 2020
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