By CHRISTOPHER RANSOM (St. Martin’s Press; 2009)
Seemingly everyone has praised this novel to the skies, and after reading it I’ll have to say that in this case everyone is right. A first novel of uncommon nuance and conviction, THE BIRTHING HOUSE has a probing intelligence and depth of characterization that aren’t supposed to be able to co-exist with supernatural scares. Those wanting a primer on what’s wrong with much of today’s horror fiction should read this book, as it gets most everything right!
The novel’s brilliance starts with the portrayal of its central character Conrad Harrison, a disaffected young man who’s frankly a bit of a jerk. Yet he’s also an extremely complicated individual whose story seems worth following. The narrative has a similarly complex bent; far from the simplistic accounts of good and evil we’ve come to expect from the genre, Christopher Ransom provides a multi-layered exploration of darkness and insanity.
It begins in traditional haunted house fashion, with Conrad buying a century-old Wisconsin birthing house in an effort to save his disintegrating marriage. His wife Joanna doesn’t share Conrad’s enthusiasm for the house, and takes a job that whisks her away for several weeks. Thus Conrad is left alone in the birthing house, where he’s given a gift by the previous owner: a vintage photo album packed with moldering pictures of the many pregnant ladies who previously stayed in the house, whose ranks include the glowering face of Conrad’s wife!
It seems the birthing house, or at least something inside it, is alive, although the entity’s precise purpose isn’t immediately apparent. Conrad’s 20-year-old neighbor Nadia, who becomes increasingly drawn into his orbit, has her own history with the birthing house. Furthermore, as we get to know Conrad better a past relationship comes to light whose consequences are far reaching, and apparently of interest to the house’s demon(s).
There’s also Nadia’s trouble-making boyfriend Eddie to contend with, along with Joanna’s possibly amorous activities while she’s away, and a money-making scheme of Conrad’s that involves a litter of rare and deadly snakes. While much of the narrative pivots on real world concerns--the pratfalls of adjusting to a new environment, the hardships of dual-income marriages and long distance relationships--the supernatural intrusions are vivid and disquieting. The novel for the most part qualifies as a work of “quiet” horror marked by a sense of sustained apprehension and buried malevolence, yet the climax is a profoundly intense one in which the twin specters of demonic possession and bloody psychosis rise to the fore.
Finally, though, this book works simply because it’s so well written. The prose is refined yet suitably hip and irreverent, and flows superbly well. As one who’s read more than his share of modern horror, I can attest it’s extremely rare that a genre novel works this well in both conception and execution. In today’s glut of horror fiction THE BIRTHING HOUSE stands out as a veritable gourmet meal in a sea of fast food.