I don't think I've ever reviewed a horror novel before. It's a completely random change from the historicals that feature here fairly regularly, but it's by a lovely author from New Zealand who spent her summer digging up Roman remains on Hadrian's Wall so there is a sort of historical connection. And it lets me say 'archetype', which is my word of the month.
Here we go.
Painted by Kirsten McKenzie
If you are going to see just one horror movie, I recommend Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a horror movie that deconstructs horror movies and then sends the whole genre up while remaining a horror movie and with, arguably, the most horrific ending of all horror movies ever. It’s both terrifying and hilarious.
I mention this now because Whedon’s explanation of what makes a horror film fits so wonderfully to Kirsten McKenzie’s venture into the genre: Painted.
According to Whedon, the archetypal horror story takes a group of people to an isolated location. On the way they will meet the Harbinger, who will try to warn them away. McKenzie’s Harbinger is a local farmer, who warns her heroine to flee the isolated old house.
“If … you knew what was good for you, you’d not stay here. Place isn't right. Never has been.”
There will be five people in the house: the scholar, the jock, the idiot, the whore and the virgin. McKenzie’s five characters fit these archetypes without too much of a stretch. One by one, they will die. In Whedon’s view, the virgin is always the last to be threatened and her death is optional.
McKenzie’s characters die one by one as their souls become trapped in the portraits painted by a ghost of one of the previous owners of the house. Additional creepiness is introduced by assorted other ghosts, spectral dogs howling in the darkness outside, and the crying of dead children trapped on an island in an iced-over pond. Did I forget to mention that the house has been cut off by a blizzard? It’s fair to say that every horror-story trope features. This is not a criticism at all: Joss Whedon throws all the standard horrors into The Cabin in the Woods and that’s what makes it so good. Horror needs to be full-on if it is to work and, though McKenzie holds back on the gore, Painted doesn’t let anything pass that it can get away with.
If I have any complaints about the number of extra twists packed in, it is that sometimes they become a little over-complicated. Some, dare I say it, don't entirely make sense or are just a little too tortuous for me to be able to follow late at night (and what better time to read a book like this?). Still, it is a ghost story, so a strictly logical plot isn’t an absolute requirement.
There is a more complex story in the relationship of the characters than at first appears. I'm not going to give it away, because the shock is a good one. If you're like me, it won't come as a complete surprise but you will have a growing sense of unease about one of the people trapped in the house and when everything finally becomes all too clear you will feel a definite frisson.
The five are there to value artworks and antiques ahead of disposal following the death of the house's owner. McKenzie works in the antiques business and the minutiae of the characters’ cataloguing efforts is convincing and surprisingly gripping, especially as they are regularly interfered with by supernatural forces.
[Possible spoiler in this paragraph.] McKenzie does break away from Whedon’s model when it comes to the ending. The advantage of this is that it provides something new and edgy and, in its way, far more horrific than the conclusion that Joss Whedon (and most readers) would have expected. Respect to her for daring to be different, but I'm not sure that it works. Whedon's point is that horror stories have been handed down through millennia, always following the same basic plot and are hence simultaneously terrifying and reassuring. Making them terrifying and then a bit more terrifying is, arguably, a step too far.
McKenzie has blogged about how she now writes very quickly and this produces a pacey style entirely suited to a gripping story. It's an easy read and will hold anybody who likes this sort of thing. And if you don't like this sort of thing, why on earth are you reading it? The cover surely told you what to expect.