Short Take: It’s not weird for an adult to sleep with the light on, is it?
Naomi’s Room is a horror novel in my favorite sub-genre: The Haunted House. There are a lot of frightening things in the world (and in the imaginations of some pretty messed-up writers), but there’s something especially nerve-wracking about the terror happening in your own home. And when the horrible thing is a ghost that you can’t just call the cops on or throw hot soup at or yell “GOOD GRIEF LEAVE THE ROOM IF YOU’RE GOING TO DO THAT WHAT ARE YOU AN ANIMAL???”, it’s even more terrifying.
I’m telling jokes as a way of tiptoeing around the actual story. Naomi’s Room messed with my head in a way that very few horror novels ever have. It’s one of maybe a half-dozen, out of the thousands of books that I’ve read, that I didn’t want to read after dark. It’s that damn scary. It’s also a masterpiece of the slow burn. The awfulness is bleak and unrelenting, and it keeps getting worse and worse, but it does so in such small, subtle degrees, that you’re like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot – you don’t know how dire the situation is until it’s far too late.
The plot is so simple as to be almost laughable by a lot of storytelling standards. Charles Hillenbrand, a rather stuffy professor of literature, takes his 5 year old daughter Naomi to a toy store on Christmas Eve. In the crush of shoppers, they are separated for only a few seconds, but it’s enough for someone to pull Naomi out of the store and, later, brutally murder her.
(Note to all you gore-freaks out there – this is how you do horror right. The few allusions to the things that were done to her are far more traumatic than some drawn-out torture sequence would’ve been.)
Charles and his wife Laura are, of course, shattered. And things only go downhill from there. There are sounds of a child singing and playing. There are opened presents, a hair ribbon left on the floor, and a bloodcurdling child’s scream that cuts off far too suddenly in the middle of the night. There’s a reporter whose camera captures people who couldn’t possibly be there. Never, never has the sound of a bouncing ball been more frightening.
And there are secrets that are so shocking and hideous that reading someone else’s account of unearthing them was enough to keep me awake long after I should have been sleeping.
The entire book was told in the first-person by Charles. In the beginning, his flat, overly precise way of speaking was an annoyance. Given that Naomi’s death happened in the 70’s, and the narrative was set down some twenty years later, it made him seem like a throwback, someone who uses archaic phrasing as a form of pretension, a rather snobby, haughty, “my intellect is bigger than YOUR intellect” academic type.
As the story moves along though, that voice becomes as effective a weapon as anything I’ve ever come across. That sort of dry, emotionless, matter-of-fact voice alluding to so many horrible things somehow makes it even scarier. There’s no hysteria, no overwrought, emotional tones, just “This is what happened.” Which, OF COURSE makes the whole thing scarier.
I’m leaving a lot of out of this review. I’m doing that on purpose. There’s a lot more to the plot that I just don’t want to give away. The only way I can describe this book is to imagine yourself in a dark room, pitch black, with the only sounds your own breathing and heartbeat. It’s peaceful, and you know you’re alone, until a strange voice whispers “hello darling” in your ear.
This whole book is like that. Hell, I’m not doing it justice. Just read it. And make sure your nightlight has a fresh bulb.
The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS