Our narrator, Sam, is a down-and-out adjunct professor of archeology barely hanging onto her sanity. After a series of upsetting events, we find her moving back to her crumbling, ancestral mansion in on the edge of a foreboding Virginia swamp. The mansion is, for all intents and purposes, haunted. It’s haunted by the living specter of her mother; a woman who a drank herself to wraithdom while wandering the halls of her empty and rotting home. It is also haunted by memories; the living inhabitants of the house frequently find themselves watching past actions and interactions of the people who used to live in the house; people ranging from the workers who built it to past versions of those who currently reside within its crumbling walls.
Sounds spooky, yes? It is! Kaplan masters the atmosphere of a rotting mansion in a stinking swamp; you can feel the dampness, smell the rot, and catch the shiver of the unforgiving winter on every page. The visions can be sudden and frequently upsetting; there is violence and mistreatment of all living creatures throughout. Some of the particularly gruesome images are still stuck between my eyelids, but I am afraid that atmosphere alone cannot drive an entire novel.
Kaplan, like Sam, is a collector. Sam holds onto bits and bobs for luck, and Kaplan pulls pieces of other tales, tropes, and things that go bump in the night – keeping them in a tight and unnecessary grip. The Winchester Mystery House is a model for the mood and layout of the mansion, the swamp is not just any swamp but the swamp of Bell Witch lore, the ghosts are sometimes real, the memories are sometimes false, “insanity” is thrown around when the moment strikes, characters rock between personalities at a wild pace, and once all the stops are pulled towards the end of the novel it feels like Kaplan is finishing off a check-list of creepiness instead of a satisfying story. In the quest for Southern Gothic, instead of leaning on their atmospheric strengths, Kaplan blacked out their spooky bingo card.
*I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.