The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom
Published by Sphere, January 2009
Review by Mark Yon
It seems at the moment there is a resurgence Ė a resurrection, if you like Ė of horror genre books, at least in the UK. (In the US, though it is less than it was in the 1980ís, my impression is that it has never gone away.) Swamped by repetition, gluttony and just bad writing in the 1980ís, the end of the 20th century was, to all intents and purposes (and despite a rallying call from some quarters)- erm, dead.
However, the last couple of years have shown UK publishers quietly readdressing this trend by introducing horrors old and new. The growth of urban romance seems unstoppable. However the reappearance of old and traditional horror - a new M R James reprint here or a Lovecraft reprint there, a Stephen Jones collection each year, until by 2009, perhaps as a reflection of these darker times we live in, we start to see new shoots of growth. In 2008, a new imprint, Virgin Horror, has been commissioning, Abaddon Books seems to be cutting its own gory niche, and in January, Solaris Books published an anthology of modern stories in honour of Edgar Allan Poe.
Credit crunch notwithstanding, Horrorís back, though to some itís never been away.
To this context, we add an interesting debut by Christopher Ransom.
The story is initially straight-forward. Conrad Harrison is a young hotshot in Los Angeles who longs for a life away from the city. He impulse-buys an old house in Wisconsin, despite the fact that his wife Jo is reluctant to leave LA and so continues to commute there. This leaves Conrad in the house whilst she works away. Soon Conrad is hearing the cries of a baby in the middle of the night, imagining blood on the floor and seeing a woman around the house that looks like his wife. Further complications ensue when Conrad takes an interest in the pregnant girl next door, Nadia. As this interest becomes an obsession, the book leads to an unusual development...
What is interesting about this book is that itís take on horror- the knowing contemporary cultural references, and the oh-so-post-modernist slant within this version of basically an old-style haunted house story almost works. Itís cool, itís hip, itís sexy Ė but Iím not sure whether, despite all its flash and its intelligence, itís really anything new.
The shadows cast by early Stephen King (íSalemís Lot, Carrie, The Shining) and Dean Koontz are large. Like much of that Ď80ís horror (not necessarily King or Koontz), there is an enthusiasm in sexuality allied with a gleeful abandonment of good taste that often underpins good horror Ė the college dissertations on the links between sex and horror are many Ė though here the sex is rather ramped up to 11.
Mind you, this is not a simple sex-orgy-horror novel Ė in actuality, it is really not that explicit in these liberating times. There is another tone here, clearly intelligent and knowing, with the engagingly fractured denouement being a delusional descent into a Psycho-like existence.
But is it scary? Thereís clearly a lot of confidence on the part of the publisher with this book, and to a degree I can see why. However for many horror fans this will disappoint. Those looking for a King-like Overlook hotel will ultimately feel short-changed.
The biggest problem for me, I think, was the lack of sympathy I felt for the main character Ė a self-obsessed, laddish bloke, who made me wonder why anyone would want to spend time with him, let alone be his wife or lover. At times, things seemed to happen a little too conveniently and yet at other times irritatingly inconvenient. The internal logic required for good horror to work seemed to be rather too inconsistent for some readers to be satisfied.
Nevertheless there are some skilful touches here and some nice chills along the way. I am sure that Christopher will be a writer to watch in the future. I think that for readers unknowledgeable about the genre this will be a fine read. For me though, although I enjoyed reading it, it may be a case of a book whose ambition is admirable though its execution rather lacking.
Mark Yon, January/February 2009
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