'House of Echoes' (7 out of 10) Written by Brendan Duffy. Published by Ballantine Books. Available 4/14/15.
Horror novels from new writers can be very hit or miss. It’s rare to find one that fits right in the middle. Often we see someone emulating things that have been done before, or trying to completely flip the norm. Brendan Duffy’s "House of Echoes" is one of those rare middle-quality books. For an author reading that last comment they’d probably feel this is a negative review. It’s not. Truly good ten star horror that makes me not want to stop reading at night because it means I’ll have to sleep and have nightmares is a rare gem. Incredibly bad horror is far more common, blending a trashy composition of Mary Shelley and Stephen King. If you can entertain and surprise, make me sympathetic to your characters, and actually create concern that a favorite may not survive then you’ve done something well - even if you haven’t given me nightmares.
"House of Echoes" takes what looks to be a basic John Saul plot (family in a small town, young boy, ancient evil, etc.) and builds something unique. Small towns haunted by an ancient evil are a good device for horror simply because of the fun characters you can create who inhabit it. Generations of people living with the same terrors create some fun individuals.
The characters are one point that truly shines in this novel. The key protagonist, Ben, is a fully realized character that has adapted to his wife’s mental illness, but not well. Which is, in many ways, more believable than someone who has actually overcome the problem, rather than pretending to. His son, Charlie, reacts in many ways like I would have reacted as a child. Other notable characters include the kindly priest, the sheriff’s prick of a deputy/son, and the weird old lady that runs the town archive. Sure, they all look like stereotypes for a horror novel. And that may be one of the reasons Duffy’s novel is not a five star masterpiece. But, stereotype characters exist for a reason, especially in horror. They create a lens for us to understand the circumstances surrounding our main characters and these particular stereotypes are done quite well.
Another fun aspect of "House of Echoes" is Swannhaven’s ancient evil. Brendan Duffy does an excellent job of forcing the reader to ask whether the big bad is supernatural or psychotic in nature. Are we looking at an ancient wendigo or colonial poltergeists that perform superhuman and unnatural feats? Or are we looking at a family’s own psychoses influencing the otherwise banal behaviors of small town weirdos? Or, is that senile woman with the herb garden actually poisoning everyone into mass hysteria? These questions are a great way to keep the reader guessing and wanting to read on. They’re also fun when you suddenly start getting the answers in the third act. For an experienced horror fan, you’ll probably figure out the answers three to five pages before the author spells them out. That’s generally a good range for everything to come together as the reader can feel smart for solving the problem before the character, but not so far in advance that the events feel predictable.
Altogether, Brendan Duffy’s "House of Echoes" is a solid and enjoyable novel. It’s not the greatest horror novel ever written, but it is a damn sight better than so much of the urban fantasy garbage that gets billed as horror in the modern publishing industry.