Book Review: The House of Frozen Screams by Thana Niveau

“Assured, confident, and tightly controlled, The House of Frozen Screams both adds to and subverts the generally held conventions of the haunted house novel.”

The haunted house story is a staple of the horror genre. Indeed, it almost exists in a genre by itself, encompassing Gothic, romantic, supernatural, and psychological elements, amongst others. It can be quiet and subtle as you like or be as violent and gory as any splatter film. As can most horror, sure, but there’s a versatility to the haunted house (‘house’ being just about any building or vessel that serves as the setting) that seems to surpass many other horror tropes. Indeed, whilst there are those who think the haunted house story is a “read-one-read-them-all” kind of deal, there’s far more diversity than might seem at first glance. And so, to the subject of this review. Thana Niveau is a recognised figure in the UK horror scene, both at conventions and in the pages of various anthologies and magazines. She has been published by the likes of Black Static, Interzone, The Dark, Shock Totem, and Black Shuck Books, with two full collections released through Gray Friar Press (From Here to Eternity, 2012) and, most recently, PS Publishing (Octoberland, 2018). Her fiction regularly appears in various best horror collections, and it is surprising, therefore, to find this book is her first published novel.

Opening with what is essentially a prologue (though marked as the first chapter), we are introduced to the house of Wintergate. Standing proud but forlorn on a coastal hillside a few miles west of Bristol, it is a partial ruin. Yet the estate agents responsible for it thinks they can sell it. So they send in a photographer to document the building … it’s an inspired opener. Managing to both set the scene and detail the structure, it also succeeds in being absolutely terrifying. There are genuine chills as the camera clicks in the silence or when strange noises are just about heard. Then we are into the book proper, and our two main characters. Most of the story is told from Liz Holland’s point view, with occasional forays into her husband Nick’s interior landscape. There are also a couple of other brief viewpoints, but more on those later. Liz and Nick are on the hunt for a place of their own, their first. The flat they currently reside in leaks like a sieve, and it’s a situation that’s forcing them to prematurely buy. But that doesn’t mean they’ll take anything. So, when they’re offered a viewing of Wintergate, they doubt it’ll be for them. Yet when they look round, something in the place speaks to them; or, more accurately, speaks to Liz. And so they buy the house, and for the first few weeks, all seems ideal. This, despite the work that clearly needs done to the place. And the strange dreams Liz begins having. And the odd feelings the place engenders, the strange noises, the half-glimpsed shadows, the plaster gaze of Carson Menrath, builder of Wintergate, glaring down at their bed …

So far, so expected, one might think. The creaky old house, the odd goings-on, the strange pull it exerts when really, Liz and Nick should be running. The first few chapters feel like Niveau is settling comfortably into familiar haunted house territory. And that’s no bad thing. The writing is lovely, a touch of the poetic yet clear and tight. The story meanders in these first few pages, yet never feels pedestrian. In fact, so engaging are the characterisations of Liz and Nick, that we enjoy the time we’re spending with them. All the while knowing—or dreading—the terror to come. For what Niveau is really doing in the early part of the novel is lulling the reader, practically pushing them into smug expectations that are soon confounded. When the shift comes, it’s still subtle and gradual, but marks a change of gear nonetheless. The strange incidents escalate, the plaster cast of Menrath’s face takes on a more sinister aspect, and Liz’s dreams become more agitated and detailed. And with this comes a change in her personality. This is the shift, when the book moves from standard haunted house territory into something far more horrific and affecting, intimate and personal. It also sidesteps the issue of why people don’t just vamoose when the place they live in starts acting weird (easy in fiction, not always easy in real life …). In this instance, it’s because Liz refuses to, refuses to accept that anything’s wrong. And this drives a wedge between her and Nick, something neither thought possible. Suspicion, paranoia, and altered personalities take their toll. And Niveau details it all with the authenticity and sensitivity appropriate to a proper examination of mental health issues. But as this is a horror novel, it’s obvious more than just stress and anxiety are causing Liz’s problems. It’s the house.

As Wintergate deepens its hold on Liz, she is offered glimpses and visions of its former inhabitants. She, and the reader, come to know some of the tragedy that befell Menrath’s wife, Vanora. It involves failed births, deformed children, and something in the walls of the house. There is death and blood. Events begin to parallel in the present, and Liz slips ever further into delirium and madness. Nick too, is not immune to the influence of the house, though he manages to extricate himself for a time and seems less affected. These scenes are rich in detail and atmosphere. Niveau knows just how to twist the narrative around her characters, how to pile the horror on top of them, and she does so without pulling any punches. This, then, is no comfy, fireside ghost story; instead, it is a full-on, bloody horror tale. Yet the violence is always in the service of the story. It never feels gratuitous or tacked on for cheap thrills. When Liz’s mother—a minor character in early chapters—is given her one point-of-view scene, it is done to elicit maximum impact and dread. Far from feeling like an anomalous insert, it works and works well.

The whole book builds and moves—like a shambling, behemothic creature gathering unstoppable momentum—towards its completely unexpected and cosmic-horror tinged end. If there are any criticisms of the novel, it is here. The ending, whilst being a suitably down-beat, apocalyptic one, feels like it comes out of nowhere. Perhaps just a shade more time spent in the flashbacks with Menrath and Vanora and their similarly unfolding ordeal might have tied these final scenes more naturally. Perhaps just a little more foreshadowing to really lock down the foundation for what finally happens might have been more beneficial. However, it’s a small complaint, and one that barely impacts on what has gone before.

This may be Niveau’s first published novel, but it feels like an established writer’s work. Assured, confident, and tightly controlled, The House of Frozen Screams both adds to and subverts the generally held conventions of the haunted house novel. Niveau shows just why she’s held in high-esteem by both readers and her peers. This then, is not just a great novel, well-written and full of fantastic and inventive horror. It’s a promise of what’s to come, for which we can only imagine and wait in anticipation. This is just the beginning, and what a beginning it is.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Horrific Tales Publishing
Hardback: 424 (pps)
Release Date: 20 October 2018

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