Book reviews are not objective measures. The rating a work receives depends almost entirely on the reviewer’s personal preferences (and occasionally, regrettably, a reviewer’s ulterior motives, unbridled envy of others’ talent, or blatant snobbery). Since I have zero clout in the literary world, I doubt the latter group applies to me, but I am very aware of my own proclivities and the effect they have on my enjoyment when it comes to dark fiction. I am rapt by well-written dialogue and witty narration; I appreciate subtle references to established tropes and archetypes; I shamelessly admit to being enamored with characters that remind me of myself, and I love it when a writer takes chances and it pays off. All of these things are present in Rachel Harrison’s The Return.
With winks and nods to the Cassandra complex, the movies Raw and Goodnight Mommy, and Stephen King creepfests like The Shining, Pet Sematary, and The Outsider, The Return could have easily settled in to be just another modern gothic rehashing of the same old ghost tale: girl disappears, loved ones grieve, girl returns years later, loved ones wonder where the hell she was. However, Harrison digs deeper than that, creating a solidly psychological horror tale that may be read at face value or as an allegory for the processing of a loss--or even better, for the growing pains that exist in any long-term friendship. Told by Elise and featuring her three best friends from college, the majority of the story takes place on the foursome’s weekend getaway. The narrator notes, “friendships are mercurial. They're shape-shifters. I've learned to allow them to fluctuate and take new forms,” and yet, ironically, one of the pals appears to be doing just that: Julie reappears after being M.I.A. for two years, and there are signs she may not be Julie at all, or even worse, that she brought something very disturbing back with her.
I didn’t bother reading any of the reviews of this book. To be honest, I saw that a friend I follow on Goodreads had finished it and liked it, and after reading the summary and seeing that it was written by a newer female author, I decided to give it a go. I am certain that the reception on this work is likely quite extreme. Splatterpunk and high-velocity-fantasy fans are going to give it a hard pass; those who crave traditional plot arcs and canned gothic clichés are going to boo. Readers who like to feel the delicious sensation as an ominous mood builds into a crescendo, however, are going to applaud it.
The women meet in a specialty hotel that puts the word “kitschy” to shame; its décor reminds me of the darkest scenes in Alice in Wonderland, the ones that made me believe, as a child, that Carroll’s true intention was to scare the bejesus out of me. Teeth progressively grow yellower, sharper, more feral. There is portentous weather, a ravenous devouring of rare meat by a once stringent vegetarian, and dark shadows skulking around and under a bed, and all of this imagery gently elbows that something is not quite right. The feeling of simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia hammers repeatedly, from the white knuckled car ride by the narrator to the Catskills and her naughty exploration of a house she shouldn’t have entered, to the obscenely decadent hotel spaces and a character’s rendition of a hiking trip in a vast forest.
It is not until the last 1/8 of the book that the body horror really begins to fly, and by holding back until those very last scenes, Harrison hits her mark. The orgasm of gore does what it intends: it moves the story from being consistently unsettling to truly frightening. Can I state that this is a novel every horror fan will appreciate? Absolutely not. But for those of us who appreciate psychological fiction, well-drawn characters, and a methodical pace, this is as close to gold as it gets. I’m excited to see what Harrison has in store next.