I write short stories and screenplays mostly in the horror genre. Several of my short stories have been published including one about a Kumiho (Korean Werefox). I regularly blog about writing, the horror genre and reviews at https://www.facebook.com/davidjenkinswriter
Review of Death House by Sarah Pinborough (2015)
Plot summary- Toby's life was perfectly normal . . . until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.
Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House; an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They're looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it's time to take them to the sanatorium.
No one returns from the sanatorium.
Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.
Because everybody dies. It's how you choose to live that counts.
This book is realistic both in its subject matter a house for ill children separated isolated form elsewhere and in the characters not only their actions but their voice. There were occasions were the dialogue was slightly incorrect to me saying shit pile instead of pile of shit for e.g. but it captures how children speak even amongst there different ages from 11 year olds (simple, naïve speech) to 17 (more aggressive and swearing). The character development of the narrator Toby from withdrawn and aggressive to kind and daring is never rushed despite the novella length. This build-up of character enables us to sympathise with the narrator more over time and has the added bonus in giving us different perspectives whilst still using the same person. From a writer's viewpoint I could see the structure of the book both in plot terms and character however this never hampered the story. For instance when Toby first discovers that somebody else isn’t taking the sleeping pills you can tell it’s only a matter of time before he falls for her and that it will involve fighting the other lads. But the language used to describe Toby falling in love and the hints are well executed. The horror of the story is subtle but omnipresent, the children look for signs of the illness and talk about the symptoms with the repeated ‘I hear it makes your eyes bleed’ quote being my favourite. The house they stay in with its nurses and teachers conveys a dreaded sense of an old style asylum which adds to the realism as this was how mental health patients were probably treated in the 60s and in some places today. Matron in particularly comes across not so much as evil till near the end but indifferent, authoritative, inhuman. There are several twists in the story where everything seems to be going well for e.g. When Toby and Clara find an injured bird but you know it’s going to end bad. The story is slow in places to build up the false hope that everything is getting better but then several events including another blood test for Toby, Matron killing of a nurse because she knew the result and the death of one of his friends make the book a real page-turner. This book is very economical in both its description and its side characters each of which shows an important viewpoint including religious, bully, naïve etc. so are necessary to a well-balanced story. Lastly on the positive side this book should appeal to romance and horror readers, perhaps even people who liked Stand By Me with its portrayal of kids struggling to come to turns with a big event.
My main critique is the over use of showing Toby’s memories (presented in italics to differentiate between the main story). At first it helps build a picture of Toby and makes us more sympathetic with him but once we like him and the story progresses rapidly most of the memories get in the way (apart from the mermaid ones). I also would have liked more description on what this disease actually is that the kids suffer from and why it’s now rare, not knowing doesn’t detract from the fear.
Overall this is the best book I have read this year, even though parts of it were predictable and the memory sections occasionally dragged it was well told, realistic and emotional.