Book Review: Matryoshka by Penny Jones

“ This novella is adept at putting the reader into the mind of someone who may or may not be suffering from some kind of schizophrenia. It manages to successfully treat mental health and illness with deep sympathy, yet also craft an affecting horror story.”


Matryoshka by Penny Jones One of the greatest boons to the horror genre was the advent of self-publishing and indie presses. Whilst on the face of it, it allowed anyone to publish anything, it also allowed many to reach an audience they might not otherwise. And far from the ocean of substandard writing and cover art some still believe it to be, instead we have a plethora of diverse and interesting stories and books that are easily the equal of bigger outfits. In addition, many writers who got their start in the small presses have gone on to bigger things. Indie publishing has provided a platform and springboard to launch writers into the mid-levels or above. And many self-published writers have made a phenomenal success story of what they do.

One UK press working to bring great British writers to readers’ attention is Hersham Horror Books. Starting back in the early 2010s, HHB has put out various anthologies, novella/novelette collections (the PentAnth series), and themed series. And beginning only a few years ago, they launched their Primal Range of stand-alone novellas. Various writers have contributed to this series linked by book design. Writers such as Gary McMahon, Steven Savile, Charlotte Bond, Marie O’Regan, Stephen Bacon, and others. And their latest is by Penny Jones. Penny has had short stories in numerous anthologies, a mini collection released through Black Shuck Books, and contributed a novelette to The Woods (PentAnth 6, Hersham Horror Books, 2019). Matryoshka is her first long-form release.

Written in first person past tense, the opening of the book immediately puts us in the mind of Lucy. She is lying on her sofa, hearing her front doorbell ring and wishing it would just stop. She is also heavily pregnant, and feels ungainly, uncomfortable, struggling with her second baby where she didn’t with her first, a now three-year-old daughter. It’s clear from the off Lucy is suffering—from anxiety and stress, from pre-natal depression. We are quickly given to understand something is deeply wrong, though we don’t know quite what yet. Hints are dropped, such as memory lapses and mild paranoia. But also, that Lucy’s husband Mark might not be the perfect partner. When she does finally answer the door, Lucy finds only a neighbour there, asking for some sugar. But even this interaction has undercurrents of a mildly unsettling nature. Voices whispering, a fake—Lucy feels—smile on the woman’s face. As the scene later shifts to the evening, and the family settling down to dinner, more oddness abounds. Disembodied voices tell Lucy her husband is lying when he says he’s going to be busy at work. It’s obvious we’re in the hands of an unreliable narrator, but as so often happens in the best of these stories, we can never be sure just which bits are unreliable.

The novella progresses along this route, Lucy’s paranoia and anxiety increasing as her life seems to collapse around her. It is subtle and creeping, like ivy slowly growing up the walls. And locked within Lucy’s thoughts we become deeply sympathetic to her plight. Much of that is to do with the writing, the presentation of her story. Jones drops in veiled suggestions of past trauma, indications that she and Mark have had problems before. It all comes across as deeply plausible, a tale we think we’re familiar with through dramas and documentaries, through newspaper stories. But also because many of us have, at one time or another, gone through such experiences. Not specifically related to pregnancy and the like, of course. But through a shared sense of fragile mental health. We all experience stress at some point, feel life is crushing us to one extent or another. Even feel others are not on our side, with no rational evidence to suggest that’s the case. Lucy’s initial experiences aren’t all that histrionic that we can ‘dismiss’ them as, or provide armchair diagnoses of, severe psychological issues. No, what she describes, incorporeal voices aside, feels all too real and depressingly common.

Jones skilfully builds on Lucy’s predicament, slowly layering on her neuroses. Until we reach a point where we realise things are perhaps significantly worse than we thought. By this stage, we are invested in her story. That doesn’t stop us reading on in increasing horror, and there are number of moments which make us recoil. One in particular relating to her toddler had this reviewer’s blood running cold, delivered as it was in such a matter-of-fact manner. As the story begins to pick up pace, rolling inevitably, unstoppably, towards its conclusion like a boulder freewheeling downhill, our assumptions change. Jones shifts the narrative from one of plausible reaction to stressful events into something far more paranoiac. But still, we stay with Lucy. The initial foundations of empathy, the earlier pages detailing quiet suffering and tying our loyalties to Lucy remain. We are tethered to her story, sharing her plight. And, as with many psychological horror stories, there is that lingering sense what she’s experiencing might be real. She certainly believes it is, and this helps to keep the ground beneath the reader’s feet suitably rocky. This crafted uncertainty begins really creeping into the narrative in the final part of the book and remains with the reader even after the end.

This novella is adept at putting the reader into the mind of someone who may or may not be suffering from some kind of schizophrenia. It manages to successfully treat mental health and illness with deep sympathy, yet also craft an affecting horror story. The only area letting it down very slightly is the editing. There are, unfortunately, a number of typos throughout the manuscript, and much in the way of run-on sentences and the like. As it is, the story is still well-realised and gripping; a tighter edit simply would elevate what is already very good to even greater heights. It is still well worth seeking out for those who love psychological horror. Penny Jones is proving—with this novella, with her previously praised shorts—she is a writer on the rise. Certainly, we here at This is Horror will be keeping an interested eye on where she goes next.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Hersham Horror Books
Paperback: 115 (ps.)
Release Date: 5 April 2021

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