I grew up in the thirteenth most haunted place in the world. For reals, you guys: when I was in high school, Fox Family Channel filmed an episode of a show called Scariest Places on Earth
(or something) there. I grew up next door to my mother's childhood home, which is included in the university library's "Hauntings" file due to things like creepy old ladies supposedly hanging out in the hallways and Native American burial mounds in the backyard.
Despite all of this, I have never been much of a horror fan. It's not so much that I don't like being scared as I often find supernatural plots kind of...well, silly. Even with aunts and uncles who swear by it, I've just never really believed in things like ghosts. The Ring
, The Exorcist
, Blair Witch
-- these sorts of stories require me to suspend disbelief way beyond where I am normally willing to go.
Marisha Pessl, though, has taken the horror novel to a new level.
Pessl was a buzzy name seven years ago, when Special Topics in Calamity Physics
was the most love-it-or-hate-it title of 2006. This book has been on the docket for at least two or three years now, so Marisha has built some lofty expectations to deal with.
This book is about a disgraced investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, looking into the death of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of legengary reclusive film director Stanislav Cordova. Cordova is the kind of filmmaker that makes Lars Von Trier look like a pansy, and his films are considered so dark and disturbing that the only way to see them is to track down a black market copy through an underground secret society of fans. Several years ago, Scott went from investigative journalist to disgraced investigative journalist by following up on a tip that something fishy was going on in Cordova's isolated estate in upstate New York only to be hit up with a slander lawsuit. When he hears that Ashley has apparently killed herself in an abandoned warehouse, he suspects there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Scott's investigation pairs him up with two troubled youths - Nora and Hopper - as they delve into the worlds of black magic, psychiatric institutions, and cultish legions in an attempt to find out what happened to Ashley. Pessl leaves almost no horror trope unturned and yet this story never feels cliche. It's creepy, dark, and twisty with clues folding out in fits and starts, their meanings changing with each turn of the page. Like House of Leaves
, Pessl has woven her story with newspaper clippings and web screenshots, the various multimedia adding to the investigation and I was never really sure what was going to happen next.
There were a few small things that kept me from rating this book five stars. I didn't completely buy that Scott would be so willing to team up with two random twentysomethings, and there were times when I wanted Pessl to get to the point a little quicker. My biggest complaint with Special Topics
was that Pessl kept adding twists to the plot long after it felt necessary and, to an extent, she's guilty of that here. Six hundred pages is a lot, and I honestly felt she could have trimmed out some of the various threads and long descriptions without losing too much meat.
Still, this is a superlative horror novel that will make you question a lot about the world you've found yourself in. Pessl has very much fulfilled those giant expectations.