A Review of Welcome to the Dark House, by Laurie Faria Stolarz
Hyperion (Disney), 2014
by REBECCA, August 6, 2014
For seven horror fans (well, six horror fans and one traumatized girl who’s trying to desensitize herself) this will be the weekend of their lives. After submitting essays about their scariest nightmares, they’ve won an exclusive look at horror director Justin Blake’s new movie and the chance to stay at a bed and breakfast crawling with creepies. But when you hand someone else a guide to your most terrifying nightmares, don’t be surprised when they come true . . . [Come on, that clearly should’ve been a sentence in a blurb about this book; you’re welcome, Hyperion!]
I’ve been on a total horror/supernatural/mystery kick lately, so I was excited to read Welcome to the Dark House (good title; good cover). I liked the premise a lot: horror fans competing to win an in-the-middle-of-nowhere weekend that’s all about their favorite horror director. It’s got the promise of thrills and chills alongside the possibility for some nerdy meta-horror fandom.
Welcome to the Dark House starts really strong. Ivy Jensen’s nightmare is rooted in reality. Six years ago, her parents were murdered by a serial killer as she slept across the hall. After she called 911, their killer came to her room and spoke to her before police sirens scared him away, leaving her in constant fear that he would reappear and finish the job. Ivy’s fear hasn’t lessened over the years, so, at the end of her rope, she decides that she needs to somehow desensitize herself to it. Imagining that she might do so by learning what so many people seem to love about horror movies, Ivy enters the contest, even though she isn’t sure how she got put on the list to receive its announcement, and when she wins, she decides she will conquer her fears by facing them.
And it pretty much goes downhill from there. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a terrible book. It’s fun and has a few scary moments. But it could have been totally good, so I found myself getting more and more disappointed as it went along. What it suffers from are the same things that make so many horror films throwaways, and it’s frustrating to see, because a novel is the perfect medium (to me) with which to take advantage of everything that’s awesome about horror but also to add in a lot of that to which horror movies aren’t as suited.
Horror Film Problem #1. Welcome to the Dark House doesn’t go in depth enough with character development to make me care about the characters as people to care when they die (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a horror movie). The reason that I wasn’t able to care much about the characters is that the book is written from six different perspectives, shifting every chapter. For the first few chapters this worked fine because the characters hadn’t gotten to the bed and breakfast yet. But once they were all together, there was NO REASON for a shifting perspective because . . . they’re all together. So, the shift in perspective seemed arbitrary—why have Garth tell this part of their dinner and Shayla tell this part? No reason. Because they’re all together.
Of course, there would have been a reason if the characters’ POVs deepened our understanding of them and their backstory, or if, as I always hope for in a shifting-POV book, the different characters’ views of events are quite different, revealing internal mysteries and hidden motivations. But that wasn’t the case here. As such, I was constantly having to flip back to the chapter to see whose POV it was from because the voices of the characters are not distinct from one another. This is a huge pet peeve of mine in general: if you’re going to use shifting perspective, your characters’ voices need to be unique enough that there’s never any doubt in my mind who is speaking.
It also turned out to be a problem because (no specific spoilers:) some of the characters die. So . . . it’s kind of awkward. Really, this should have been either in third-person, so we could fully experience things from all characters’ POVs or it should all have been from Ivy’s perspective since she’s established (as any horror aficionado will see) very early on as what Carol Clover calls “the final girl.”
Horror Film Problem # 2. Like so many horror films, Welcome to the Dark House starts out as one kind of book and becomes a different kind in the third act. The first act, where our horror fans are arriving at the bed and breakfast and meeting each other, and the second act, when they begin to experience the delights of the horrors that have been planned for them there, feel very much of a piece. This makes up the first half of the book, which was both too long to glean as little depth about/investment in the characters as I did, and also too short to really develop the B&B as a house of horrors. It was, as horror goes, kid stuff.
The one exception to this is Natalie, a character whose nightmare is her own reflection. Her character has some interesting shit going on, which I appreciated, but which merely served to make the rest of the characters feel generic by comparison, unfortunately.
Halfway through the book, it decides it’s not satisfied with the B&B concept and takes the characters to an amusement part where, in order to be shown the new Justin Blake film, they must each face a carnival ride that is their own nightmare. Except there are also a bunch of random other rides that they can go on, so they just hang out for a while, lessening the suspense for no reason. Oh, and they’re locked in. In case that wasn’t obvious.
So, in order to be allowed to see the movie they must each face their nightmare ride, but no one is allowed to go on anyone else’s ride or they forfeit the chance to see the film. No idea why, except that this conceit finally makes it clear which chapter is told from which character’s perspective . . . ?
Horror Film Problem #3. Also like so many blah horror movies, Welcome to the Dark House isn’t even satisfied with one shift in frame; it has to add another one. The ending provides an ad hoc explanation of why they’re all actually there, which is thrown away so casually in one sentence that I don’t know why Stolarz even bothered. And, the final nail in the coffin, the book ends with the essays that the characters wrote to win the contest. But, why? Because we already saw what their nightmares were when they lived through them. Like, twenty pages before. (It also serves to remind the reader of a major plot thread that was never tied up . . .)
So, all in all, I think most real horror fans will find Welcome to the Dark House a predictable, unsuspenseful exercise in skimming. However, I would recommend it to folks who aren’t that into horror but are looking for a bit of a scare because it won’t feel as done-to-death for those unfamiliar with the genre, and because it really is only a tip of the hat to horror, so it’s not going to scare the bejeezus out of you.
Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1), by Karina Halle (2011). Y’all want a real horror novel that is also called Darkhouse? Of course you do! Karina Halle’s Experiment in Terror series is one of my all-time fave horror series. Perry Palomino has always had . . . issues with the supernatural. But when she meets Dex Foray, she’s willing to dive headfirst back into them to be the host of his online ghost hunting show. As the fear factor rises, so does the chemistry!
The Midnight Club, by Christopher Pike (1994). Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side.
procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz is available now.