Night Things by Michael Talbot. (Valancourt Books, 2015).
Lauren Ransom, her new husband Stephen Ransom, and Lauren’s son Garrett from a previous marriage, are renting a house for the summer, but not just any house; it’s the infamous Lake House, one of the many ‘great camps’ built high up in the Adirondacks during the late nineteenth century by East Coast magnates looking to one-up each other in aggressive and ostentatious opulence. What Lauren doesn’t yet know about the house is that its history, unlike that of the other lodges, is quite strange and overtly bloody; as if to underscore this, the architecture is erratic, with hallways and doors leading nowhere, that twist back on themselves, or lead the overly curious back to the lower outer edges of the house. Why did Sarah Balfram, daughter of a railroad magnate, build this Victorian monstrosity? Why the immensity? Why the convoluted and eccentric design? Why all the deaths? Why here? And who is the man with the green-glowing eyes who waits in the fog by the water?
Michael Talbot has written a haunted house story unlike most others. Obviously inspired by the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, the similarities of amplitude, idiosyncratic architectonics, and Victorian composition end there, with the Lake House taking on a supernatural life of its own. This separate, and rather bloody, life is signaled by the idyllic body of water near which it was built: Lake Ketcimanitowa, or translated from Algonquin, ‘place of great supernatural power’. And there lies the key. Is it ghosts haunting this house or is it something even more terrifying?
Here, Talbot is wonderfully skilled at plot construction, using the techniques of a good mystery writer by weaving conspicuous scenarios through an eye-of-the-needle narrative while smoothly twisting those scenarios back on themselves and forcing the reader’s expectations to take different directions, insightfully mimicking the Lake House design as a structure for the story itself, but instead of pushing the reader away, it draws the reader in ever deeper, keeping the spiraling tension high and the interest piqued. Oddity builds upon oddity as the house is explored and new things are learned, with sudden revelations stunning readers and taking them further from where they initially thought they would end up. Originally published in 1988, its one of the first supernatural tales to make use of the eerie aura of the Winchester Mystery House, and it also predates by twelve years Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves in at least one significant way. For its time, the story was highly original and quite impressive and is still extremely effective for the most part.
Unfortunately, though, Talbot isn’t as adept stylistically or when creating characters. Being written at the tail-end of the eighties horror novel boom, he naturally incorporates all of the bad qualities from that mass market era, a time when the covers of the books were often better than the books themselves: blatant and excessive exposition is paramount to Talbot, which creates a slippery smooth read but lacks sparkle and finesse; because of this, the novel at times gives off the tone and feel of an uninspired encyclopedia entry, bordering on tediousness. All of his characters are strictly derivative cardboard stock taken directly from the generic grab-bag often accessed by most on-the-run genre writers, which would be acceptable if he hadn’t spent so much time and space laying out their thin traits and – in the case of Lauren and Stephen – their preposterous back-stories. On the opposite end, the ultimate revelations and denouement jolt the reader out of the story with their garish near-comedic presentation, with a handful of moments from the climax seeming more appropriate to something like Olsen and Johnson’s 1941 Hellzapoppin’ movie than a sober horror novel. During these parts, it appears Talbot’s tongue is planted firmly in cheek. Still, despite these drawbacks, the book is worth the time, if not for the style and characters, at least for the highly imaginative hook and deft plot construction.