So, you know I am a sucker for horror stories. I love being scared - in the good way, safely, through a book. Not in the bad way, which is in real life. I've found that the very best frightening books spill over into my life so that I become unable to read them at night. I become too nervous, too jumpy. Now, I like this feeling or I wouldn't read scary novels. The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff is one of those novels. It is so good and so frightening that I had to stop reading it last night and wait for the safety of daylight to read it. So imagine this: sitting at the kitchen table, cup of tea at hand, children on Wii, sun streaming in the window, and I am still scared. That's how good and scary this book is.
Dr Laurel MacDonald flees from the West coast and ends up in North Carolina at Duke University, desperately searching for a proposal for a book so she can keep her job as associate professor and tenure. She discovers that the University used to have a psychic research facility on campus, that suddenly shut down in 1965, the year her mother left Durham for the west coast. Laurel knows she has family back east, but it's only after she buys her house and tells her mother what she's done that her mother reminds her that she has relatives there: her aunt and her uncle. From the time she discovers that the 700 boxes from the old psychic research faculty have been released a(from where they were hidden in storage), to when she makes the link to her uncle's mysterious mental disability which came from the same psychic research program, I found a real sense of unease growing. We follow the set-up that leads to her and her associate professor Brendan Cody to Folger House, where an experiment to see if a reported poltergeist experience could be uncovered to be true, first done in 1965 and that led to the mysterious shut down of the department. They discover the house, and this leads to them deciding to recreate the experiment again using psychological and personality profiles like Myers-Briggs, combining them with tested psychic ability to see if there is a link between personality profiles, psychic ability and expectation of psychic phenomena (which I think would be an interesting subject to study, by the way). There is a palpable sense of unease that grows into real terror as Laurel, Brandon and their two test students enter the supposed haunted house.
There is a little similarity with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House: two observers, and two test subjects who test high on evaluation tests for psychic abilities; an experiment at a haunted house, where they stay for a period of time to record what happens. These are the only similarities, but I did want to point out they were there. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favourite and all-time frightening ghost stories, and it is to Ms Sokoloff's credit that the similarities are only in the set-up, not in the execution at all. The Unseen stands on its own, and is in its own right it's very own ghost story. And it as unsettling and frightening as The Haunting of Hill House is.
It is terrifying in places, and I am very glad I read most of it during the daylight, and with people around me. I'm really glad I'm not alone tonight! That's how scary I found some of this book. I think it's one of the best horror novels I have read in years. So if you are looking for something to scare you, if you want that delicious frisson of fear running up your spine and tingling in your scalp, making the hair stand up on your arms just in reading about ghosts, then pick this one up.
5/5 and most highly recommended.
I could only find this in hardcover at my library. Even now, Amazon.ca says the paperback isn't available in Canada at all. I also discovered at her website that she has a new book just being released: The Book of Shadows. It combines a detective with a witch as a team. Sounds good!!! I'll be looking for this one now.
******Edited to add: I forgot to add that I have been aware of this writer ever since I reviewed Ms Sokoloff's first novel, The Harrowing, here two years ago. I am thrilled that The Unseen is better than The Harrowing (at least in my opinion it is) - because as frightening as The Harrowing was, I thought it could be more, and The Unseen does that. This is a horror writer to watch, and I hope that The Book of Shadows is as good as either of these two.