BOOK REVIEW: The Haunting by Alex Bell
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Young Adult Horror
Some curses grow stronger with time…
People say that all Cornish inns are haunted, but the Waterwitch’s history is particularly chilling. Built from the salvaged timber of a cursed ship, the guest house’s dark secrets go further back than anyone can remember.
Emma is permanently confined to a wheelchair after an accident at the Waterwitch which took place when she was ten. Seven years later, she decides to return to the place where the awful event occurred. But the ancient inn still has its ghosts, and one particular spirit is more vengeful than ever…
A chilling new title in the Red Eye horror series from the author of Frozen Charlotte.
The back of this book bears a stamp that suggests this title, while shelved in the YA section, is perhaps intended for those fourteen and up, but it doesn’t read fantastically for that age group in this reviewer’s opinion.
This is around the age when most readers start to read more critically, when they are less likely to take excuses and suspend their disbelief limitlessly. This is when they begin notice an overabundance of coincidences and conveniences just to keep the plot going, and this book certainly had plenty of those.
The stamp also suggests a certain amount of scare, which the story kept hinting at, but never quite got around to delivering.
This story follows seventeen-year-olds Emma and Jem, and Jem’s fourteen-year-old sister, Shell.
They haven’t seen each other for seven years, since Emma’s spine was crushed in an accident in the cellar of the Waterwitch, since the last time Emma was able to walk without assistance and massive amounts of pain, since her parents moved her far away from the place that had brought their family nothing but bad luck.
Emma is brought back to town by an unwell relative and told that, under no circumstances, is she to stay in that cursed and now abandoned inn. She makes an attempt to obey, at least, and stays at the inn across the road, but is soon lured back into the old, and rumoured to be haunted, Waterwitch by her childhood friends who are hiding out there after running away from their drunk and abusive father.
Creepy moments abound, and there are some gloriously gory descriptions throughout – these, no doubt, are the reason this is not for younger readers.
Next, Shell and I turned the corner and came face-to-face with a witch’s bridle – a terrible iron muzzle designed to fit over a woman’s head and force four sharp prongs into her mouth against the tongue and cheeks. The device prevented the woman from talking so that she couldn’t curse her attackers while she was being whipped and paraded naked through the streets. The tongue prong had spikes on it so that the woman would slice her tongue open if she tried to talk. The bridle even had a chain attached, presumably so that the witch could be led about like a dog on a lead, yanked around by a chain while her mouth filled up with blood. When I peered closer at the horrible thing, I could see ancient reddish stains on it.
The bath was filled with wings.
It was filled with wings, filled with wings, filled with wings.
No birds, no beaks or clawed feet, only the wings, sodden and bedraggled and ruined, with strings of blood swirling out between the feathers as they floated limply there upon the surface.
The hair tangled up in the brush wasn’t blonde, but coarse and black and thick. Not only were the strands the wrong colour but they were stiff with salt and crusty with, God, were those actually scabs? There was blood in the hair, too, I could feel it all of a sudden, dark and damp and sticky on my fingers. I suddenly had an image of a woman sitting at my dressing table, staring into my mirror and dragging my brush over her scalp over and over again, over and over and over, until the hair was all pulled out of her head and the bristles only dragged through bleeding flesh. And she would be laughing all the while, that sound that played and replayed in my nightmares.
And there are some wonderfully heartfelt quotes about about the feelings that accompany situations that none should have to, but many do deal with in life.
Mum had tried to help me before Bailey came along and she never complained about it, not once, but you still feel guilty when you have to ask someone to help you a hundred times a day – whenever you drop something, or can’t read a door, or need to tie your shoelace, or can’t reach a counter in a shop, or can’t stand without wobbling, or need something fetching upstairs. Bailey knew the words for more than a hundred different objects and he just always seemed so happy whenever I asked him to fetch me something. He’d go running off to get it and then come bounding back to present it to me, tail wagging, brown eyes shining, as if we were playing some kind of game. As if I was the one doing him the favour.
Jem was crying but they were silent tears – he was always telling me that I would have to learn how to do silent crying, too, with no more hiccups or gasping or whimpering, because we both knew that the sound made Dad angry. The problem was that everything made Dad angry. Sometimes it was the neighbours, or the weather, or the plastic lid on the microwave dinner, or the dog that barked down the road, or the pot holes in the drive, or the weather, or the sky, or the sea. Just the whole world, really. Just the whole entire world. And all that anger was like a fourth person there in the house with us sometimes – a dangerous person who spent most of their time asleep and who we would do almost anything to avoid waking up.
But the writing lets the heart and the creepiness down because there is no difference between the voices of the three characters, we’re often told rather than shown, and the author seems to have gone out of her way to hammer home just how sceptical the seventeen-year-olds are of the haunted inn, and how unobservant, which turns them into eye-roll worthy fools.
Emma, who knows that Shell has been talking about a witch, that Shell is convinced the inn is haunted, actually has this thought.
Shell sniffed loudly above me. “There were bugs,” she said, “in my hairbrush. She’s been using it.”
“She?” I repeated, dragging my eyes away from the mermaid.
“The woman,” Shell replied.
“What woman?” I asked, confused. Surely there wasn’t a fourth occupant of the Waterwitch that no one had thought to mention to me?
Shell and Jem, from a home where their dad drinks away all their money and can’t afford to get by without his seventeen-year-old son’s meager income, somehow have mobile phones. Not only that, but when they leave the family cottage and go to stay in the inn, they often use said mobile phones and are able to access the internet and make calls, despite not being able to afford proper food. And yet… when one of them goes down into the cellar which is so dark he has to hold the wall so he knows which way to walk, he doesn’t use his phone for light.
There is a chance that they still had credit from when they were living with their father… but it doesn’t seem like the kind of home life that would ensure the kids even have phones. In addition to this, the phones being taken as a given, they could definitely have sold one of those phones for some money towards food. It’s uncommon for a teenager to be without a mobile these days, but if the two were really as destitute as the author wanted us to believe, they wouldn’t have expensive technology to hand. People managed to get along without mobile phones it the past. It is doable, especially when it’s a choice between that and food.
A couple of times throughout the story, Shell spent money that she had kept secret from her brother, at one point splurging on two bacon sandwiches and coffees for her and a friend. Under the circumstances, a peace-offering was definitely required, but a kid who has grown up poor and is now squatting in an abandoned hotel doesn’t spend money so carelessly.
Conveniently, the electricity and phone are still connected at the haunted inn that has been closed for two months. Conveniently, when they need it, they are able to go stay somewhere else on the credit card Emma’s parents got her. Conveniently Emma has a wheelchair enabled car and support dog – the former of which is never explained in much detail, the latter of which is of most use to point out ghostly goings on that Emma then conveniently ignores most of the time, and dismisses shortly thereafter if there was any suspicion she might start to believe.
All in all, the negatives did bring this story down, leaving it a little boring and tiresome, and the creepy bits never developed properly into anything that would leave this reader reluctant to turn the lights off of a night. The voice needed to be brought up by a couple of years, or the gore needed to be rendered more suitable for younger readers, if this was to offer what it promised. Sadly, it’s caught in the middle, and doesn’t really fit in either camp.
As a result, this reviewer feels that younger readers who like gore and creepiness and are okay with titles above their age group might get a real kick out of this, but it’s less likely that older teenagers will be quite so able to get lost in this story.
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