By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Last year, I was deeply and irrevocably traumatized by Amy Lukavics’ Daughters Unto Devils, which left me quivering behind the sofa in abject horror. I wasn’t ready. My lifetime of reading nice Victorian novels and YA contemporaries in which high-schoolers cry about things was inadequate training for demons, possessed mothers, and something really horrifying involving small children.
This year, things are different. I’ve been reading some decent horror fiction in the last few weeks, in the way that someone aiming to run a marathon might do a couple of 10k races to prepare; Joe Hill’s The Fireman freaked me out a little, and the April Genevieve Tucholke-edited Slasher Girls and Monster Boys had me closing my eyes a few times because then the words couldn’t get me, but it was the new Lukavics novel which I thought was most likely to destroy my newfound bravery.
And guess what? I was right.
Margaret is standing at the head of my bed, her face shockingly blank, her eyes wide and her mouth slacked open as she leans over me. Her hair hangs down like a curtain, casting a shadow over one side of her face. I realize I’m trapped between her and the wall that my bed rests against. The air is stale with my cousin’s morning breath.
Enclosed in her fist is a pair of silver scissors, the elongated blades pointing at my throat.
The Women in the Walls begins with the suicide of Walter, housekeeper of the sprawling Acosta estate, whose body is discovered by seventeen-year-old Lucy. This is swiftly followed by the mysterious disappearance of Lucy’s aunt, Penelope, and the fast unravelling of her cousin Margaret’s sanity. Lucy’s father comes straight out of the Big Book of Terrible Fictional Parents, dismissing her concerns about Margaret’s safety and failing to notice that Lucy has been self-harming for years. Instead, daddy Acosta is more concerned with placating “the club,” a group of gossipy hangers-on who, we quickly discover, are not what they seem.
Lukavics had me going for a little while here, thinking I was impervious to her creepy mansion and unexplained disappearances. Although only 288 pages in total, The Women in the Walls starts slowly in terms of scares, building atmosphere as Lucy tries to investigate the house’s mysteries. When the true horror kicks in, however, it’s non-stop, and I reacted to most of the later chapter endings with something along the lines of a grimace that was also a wide-eyed look of alarm, sometimes accompanied by a terrified screech of “no!” I would like to point out that I was the sole grown-up in my house at the time of reading and had to turn all the lights on and listen to a cheesy smooth-ballads radio station to lower my heart rate. Incidentally, you too may find that singing along to Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me helps you to survive the final third of this book.
What I found particularly effective in Daughters Unto Devils was Lukavics’ depiction of a terrifyingly remote setting, with her characters taking over deserted homesteads miles from civilization. The Women in the Walls utilizes a similar sense of isolation, with the Acosta house situated in the middle of a wood with nobody nearby from whom to borrow a cup of sugar. Added to the mix here is a suffocating sense of claustrophobia, with the most traveling anyone undertakes being an ill-fated walk into the woods. There’s a real sense of obsession with the house, coveted by the club and fiercely protected by Lucy’s distant father. While there’s a definite feeling of being shut-in, the estate is intriguingly huge; early on, Lucy and Margaret discover a previously unknown graveyard in the grounds, perhaps suggesting that the novel’s horrifying events could have been prevented if they’d taken a little more interest in their surroundings. Lucy describes the place as “this nearly empty dollhouse made of stone,” and I detected a number of what must have been conscious nods to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, as the narrator refers repeatedly to “the swirling wallpaper.” It’s a reference that works brilliantly in creating the sense of a character doubting her own version of events, as well as the peculiar torment of being trapped, both literally and figuratively.
Something else The Women in the Walls shares with The Yellow Wallpaper is a feminist edge. The most interesting characters are all women, which only becomes more the case as the narrative progresses, and Lucy’s father’s response to Margaret’s mental unrest is dismissive enough that his daughter later ruminates, “What was it my father said when I confronted him about Margaret in his study? The little girl just needs to suck it up and get a hold of herself. Of course. Because little girls never worry about anything important enough to require more than a second’s thought, apparently.” When the voices in the walls begin to make themselves heard, they are all female, creating a chorus of terror that doesn’t dissipate even in the conclusion.
I’m no horror aficionado, but it seems to me that Amy Lukavics is an expert in the aspects of the genre that impact me: terrifying but oddly alluring settings and endings that deliver a massive shock. Perhaps a dedicated horror reader (rather than one who resolves to read the genre every Halloween) might see some of the shocks as schlocky or predictable, but I found The Women in the Walls a satisfyingly frightening experience, although I will avoid rereading it without adult back-up in the house.