Short Take: time-hopping, reality-swapping and limb-chopping, oh my!!
**Note: I was gifted a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
John Gregory Hancock has done something I didn’t really think was possible – he gave me a haunted house story mostly without the house.
I should probably explain that, huh?
As much as I love haunted house stories, they do tend to follow a single formula, namely that a family (or single person) moves into a house where something awful has happened, and they are terrorized. What follows may or may not involve a psychic, an exorcism, fleeing the premises, or the ghosts winning out and the evil continuing, but for the most part, the action centers on the house. Not so much with Crawlspace.
We open with Ethan Novotny being driven to the airport by his girlfriend, Patricia. Ethan is a psychic, the real deal, and he’s going to appear on a reality show called “Extreme Occult Adventures”, in which he will be investigating a haunted house. During the flight we learn a bit more about Ethan, namely that he has near-crippling claustrophobia, and that his psychic gifts give him far more grief than acclaim, as he is forced to down a cocktail of anti-anxiety meds to make it through the flight. The plane lands, he gets in the limo….
…..and the story shifts to mid-19th-century Africa. And from there to the good old USA of the 1950’s, where we finally get a glimpse of The House, followed by a brief stop in World War 2 era Japan, back ever-so-briefly to the house, and then finally to Ethan and the film crew in the present day.
And that’s what I liked best about this book. There’s a sense of dizziness, an ever-so-slight hint of unreality, an idea that at any given time, what is happening might or might not actually be happening, that the rug could get yanked out from under us any second. I also really loved the reality-show backdrop. When a horror novel manages to throw in a clever satire of the current crop of frat-bro “paranormal investigators” that are constantly clogging up my cable, I have to salute the author.
That said, there were a few aspects that just didn’t work for me. For as much story as there is here, it still felt somehow incomplete. I think that the problem is that each of the narrators is a self-contained unit. They all play a part in the story, and interact with other characters, but you don’t get a sense of the relationships that would make you feel more for them. There are two actual romantic couples, but no real sense of connection beyond that, no look at a character’s siblings or parents or best friends. Each of them exists in a vacuum.
The family that is currently living in the house is barely mentioned at all. I would’ve liked to hear more of their experiences. It’s a problem of relatability. Everyone who is in this story is either outside the horrors (like a film crew), or a long-gone victim of the house, or a psychic who of course would experience all of it in a very different way that I would. We only see the absolute worst, the terrible acts that caused the house to be evil, or the nightmare experiences of a bona-fide psychic who has to relive all of it. Not letting the present-day, normal world into the story actually limited the fear factor for me, because it was so alien, so outside of my own reality. Taking away the ordinary also took away a lot of the horror.
One last quibble: the title. I don’t usually pay much attention to them (don’t judge a book by yadda yadda yadda), but I don’t think Crawlspace fit the book very well at all. I think the crawlspace was only mentioned in one scene, near the end. Claustrophobia would’ve worked much better, in my opinion. The scene of Ethan in the MRI was some of the most effective writing in the book. I’m not claustrophobic, but I got a bit queasy reading that part, and it was a recurring theme throughout.
Then again, I’m not an author, just another internet reviewer, and believe me when I say, despite its flaws, Crawlspace is one of the more innovative haunted-house books I’ve read.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS