Reviewed by Morgan Elektra
Written by Christopher Ransom
Published by St. Martin’s Press
I am not easily frightened. Most horror fans are the same, I think. If we were easily scared, we wouldn’t last long as genre fans, would we? That being said, we all have things that really get to us in a non-jump scare kind of way… things that really, truly make us uneasy. Pregnancy and childbirth classify as one of those things for me. Horror stories centered around or involving pregnant women or newborn babies instantly have me on the edge.
So just reading the synopsis of Christopher Ransom’s debut novel The Birthing House gave me the willies. Hell, just reading the title had me slightly ill at ease. The Birthing House is the story of Conrad Harrison. Conrad purchases the titular abode in the charmingly named town of Black Earth, Wisconsin, with money left to him by his absentee father. He buys the house almost on a whim on the way back home to LA after receiving his inheritance. When he returns home, his wife appears to have spent the previous night with one of their out-of-work actor friends, and the new purchase seems precipitously timed.
The couple move into the house, hoping to rebuild their marriage, but almost immediately Conrad starts experiencing strange, incredibly vivid dreams. And once his wife leaves for a training conference for work, he is left alone in the intimidating domicile. He receives an old album from the irascible former owner who says it “belongs to the house”. The album is from when the house was a home for women, pregnant women came there to give birth, some of them unwed and some just down on their luck. Conrad is startled to realize he recognizes one of the women… she looks just like his absent wife.
Something strange happened in Conrad’s house and is still happening. The former owner’s slightly slow wife birthed a passel of deformed babies before they sold the place, and she’s not the only one who seems strangely fertile within the house’s vicinity. And then there’s the woman in the house who wants something of her own. While Ransom does an excellent job of throwing out plenty of clues, the reader is just as mired in the craziness going on as Conrad and unable to completely see the forest for the trees.
Conrad forms a bizarre relationship with the pregnant daughter of the next-door neighbor, which somehow serves to sink him deeper into the mystery of the house. They both experience strange dreams and waking visions of a woman who looks like his wife… or is it his wife somehow returned from her retreat without telling him and playing tricks on him and a girl he’s grown too close to?
It may seem like I’m being vague, or obtuse, in my descriptions, but it’s not intentional. While Conrad becomes more untethered and lost within the occurrences at the house, the reader goes with him. Ransom makes you feel the claustrophobic fear and dread. He wraps you in the thick atmosphere of the house so that you are just as frantic and frightened as Conrad. The middle section of the book is some of the best haunted house writing I’ve read in a good long while. Conrad is a great Everyman character whom you might not always like, but who always behaves in understandable ways. All of the characters are flawed but ultimately relatable, including even the dark entity.
The Birthing House’s only downfall is an incredibly unsatisfying ending. Nine tenths of the book is spent on constantly shifting ground, unsure of what is being experienced and full of truly disquieting moments. The feeling of unease is slowly and steadily kindled, and then just when it seems everything is coming to a head, we are left feeling let down and denied our finale. It’s a little like having sex that begins with really amazing foreplay, and then you build and build toward what promises to be a fantastic orgasm only to have it suddenly end without you having reached your climax. Frustrating, to put it mildly.
There is so much promise in The Birthing House, moments of true heart-pounding unease and terror. I’d definitely recommend you give it a read. While my particular fears may have made it affect me slightly more than the average reader (which might then affect how you feel about the ending), there’s no denying Ransom is a genuine talent. I can’t wait for his next book… I can only hope next time he does more than just tease me and manages to deliver that promised perfect culmination.
3 1/2 out of 5
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