Written by Damien Angelica Walters
Published by Dark House Press
Paper Tigers is a sweetly brutal effort from Damien Angelica Walters, an author I hope to see more from very soon. She’s written a deadly tight novel told with effortless, simple lyricism. No words are wasted and no feelings are spared in this raw exploration of trauma and the price of healing.
This book is a compact and lithe punching machine, and while it may lack total knockout power, it’s plenty strong enough to set you on your ass.
An apartment fire torched Alison’s entire life and the right half of her body, leaving her viciously scarred and alone. She’s lost her fiancé, her job, all hope, courage, and even one of her eyes, for fuck’s sake. Now she’s a recluse, refusing to show her disfigured face outside of her home, her prison. The only person she allows in is her mother, who’s her last contact with the outside world and the life she lost.
Alison sneaks out at night to walk the deserted streets. Even then, she hides under scarves and gloves and coats in case she has to ward off the humiliating stares of random pedestrians. Lacking any interaction with living society, Alison is captivated by strangers’ photo albums. The people in the pictures are links she can forge any way she chooses. It doesn’t matter who they actually are or were; she can create their lives and stories based solely on the visual evidence in their photos.
On one late night walk, Alison sees a cracked old photo album in the front window of a junk shop. She’d love to have it, but the shop is closed at 3 a.m. A moment later, a woman comes bustling out of the dark and unlocks the door. Alison almost runs but manages to stay put when the woman asks if she’d like to come inside for a moment and browse. Alison triumphs over her fear and, scarved head down, skulks into the store to buy the album.
Safely at home later, she’s disappointed to find that the only photo available to her is the first one. All the other pages are stuck together, and attempts to break them free only damage the elderly book. The lone picture is of a somber looking man she christens “George.” She imagines his personality and what he liked to drink.
Over the next several days, she notices odd things happening around the album. The weird events multiply until she finds herself falling into the picture of George and disappearing into the album. When she wakes up, she’s in a haunted house.
I thought this was delicious. The photo album is haunted and leads to a haunted house. What could be better? That’s some sublimely creepy shit right there. That’s some Inception-level ghosting: a haunting within a haunting.
But, seriously, Alison can’t catch a break. Or has she? After so much misery and loss, is this the proverbial blessing in disguise?
As the album begins to yield up its pages one by one, each newly revealed photo sucks Alison in. Literally. And each trip into the haunted house seems to be healing her. Back in the real world, her scars disappear for hours or even days. Alison begins to think the album, and the house it leads to, may in fact be her salvation.
But as she begins to investigate the ghosts that haunt this story, she finds out there may be a disastrous price to pay in order to become whole again.
Man, this book is nearly perfect. Great idea, fantastic plotting and pace, talented writing. Alison is a character trembling right on the edge, and Walters does an amazing job driving that home. From the very outset of the novel, I felt how broken, how lost, how outside everything Alison is. But the photo album pushes her over the brink. Her desperate hope to be healed and normal immerses her in a phantom world that’s rife with promise.
Alison’s despair and pain are distressingly real. In a novel boasting both a haunted house and a haunted photo album, Alison is the one who’s the most haunted. She teeters constantly between redemption and damnation, and the pressure never lets up. Walters paints a feverish, vivid picture that the reader is instantly caught up in.
This book is graceful and precise. It’s not flowery or metaphorical; it’s lucid and elegantly poisonous. The entire atmosphere, from page one, is expertly crafted to yank you down and trap you in Alison’s predicament. Really, my only minor complaint with Paper Tigers is that its creeping fear and horror are a bit intellectual rather than emotional. The prose is a touch cold and removed. It does a great job ushering the reader into Alison’s tribulations and keeping them pinned down, but it lacks an atavistic urgency that would dial it up to eleven. Alison is strangely calm and collected in a few situations where Walters could have really let her dissolve more into the terror and freak us all right the hell out. Her logic occasionally prevails where her emotions might have dragged her – and us – under the waves.
I wholly recommend Paper Tigers. This ain’t your average “this thing is haunted” story. It’s a smartly dark, deftly crafted journey into the depths of damaged humanity. And it’s much needed in today’s neo-noir landscape.