*Spoilers, maybe, I don’t know…
I can say with ease that I love horror novels. I love spooks, creaking floors and unnatural shadows and all that. I love horror in general, sub-genres and all. I’m a fan. One thing I don’t particularly like is little creepy ghost children. There’s something impossibly horrible about them versus any other ghost. So naturally “Naomi’s Room” was the perfect choice for a late night read.
To keep it short, the novel first introduces us to Dr. Charles Hillenbrand, the narrator of the novel. He’s a Cambridge academic enjoying a fantastic life with his wife Laura and four-year old daughter Naomi. The year is 1970 and as all is idyllic and the season is that of celebration, Charles takes Naomi out to shopping in London for Christmas Eve where the eager little girl wonders and cheers at the splendor of a toy store. Until Charles takes his eyes of her and Naomi disappears. Days later she is found dead in a nearby alley.
Now right off the start I really enjoyed what direction the novel took. It’s eerily atmospheric with a sort of archaic feel and phrasing to it but it settles the reader nicely in and doesn’t fool around with the paranormal aspect. But it can be quickly put aside for a certain amount of the first part of the novel, because it centers more on the grief of two parents who are completely helpless and equal doses of hopeful and devastated and desperate as the hours roll by and their little girl is missing. Ultimately she is found but she has been killed. The novel prepares you for that early on; it’s the story that leads to the reason of that early reveal that’s important.
We’ve all experienced the haunted house trope either through movies or games or novels and there’s a general idea as to how they work and what we can expect, so it’s crucial how the author controls and uses that environment. In “Naomi’s Room”, Aycliffe has the house more as a background character, a stage on which the story develops; it’s not highly interactive, it’s not responsible for the spooks themselves but it does serve a sufficient and important role as it is dimensional. In the true sense of the word, it shifts between time periods within the characters presence, so it not only provides a stage for the ghosts to manifest, but it also helps propel the story and gives it a refreshing touch with these very creepy time shifts happening in real time that feel not only like a gaze foreshadowing the outcome of the novel, but as a trap created by this evil presence and not by the house itself.
Aycliffe dodges the clichés haunted houses tend to run along with; the information he provides to the reader via Charles is compressed and given at a tension infused pace that helps keep you on edge. It’s very present as the memoir Charles is writing is the now of the story but we’re also experiencing the past very gradually at a nice pace that offers chunks of the truth, of the final reveal, filling the puzzle piece by piece. So the novel itself has a sense of time shifting in which the horror is both in the present and in the past; it’s very close and imminent in the present where Charles is 20 years after Naomi’s kidnapping and death, it’s with him in the rooms of the house, behind his back, so he’s very stationary as he tells that but the reader is prompted to understand and feel a lurking evil.
“She is here now, here with me in the study. I do not have to look round to know, I can feel her presence, I have acquired a sensitivity. She has never come down here before, into this room, I had thought I was safe from her here.”
“Daddy.” Her voice, behind me, at the door. “Daddy.”
“I will not turn, I will not look at her.”
Like that. It spooks you because it comes as interruptions in his storytelling and it sometimes does that unexpectedly, reminding you the horror is not forgotten and this isn’t a novel telling of something that is over. Whereas in the past the horror happens slowly, it comes in waves that suffer proper explanation due to grief and is more inconsistent, the evil is still more of a theory and a sensation than a true happening. Until the novel kicks into full gear. Then it’s straight to hell.
What weirdly enough had me chuckle a bit were the steps of revelation into Naomi’s death. That’s probably my only bicker with the novel. It was like those jokes that keep adding up for the shock factor, black humour-esq. I suppose the author detained the details so the reader could gradually find out the murder wasn’t a regular one, that it meant something or it was the exact opposite, that it served to derail both the characters and the readers as to the nature of the killing. I’m not sure, that’s pretty much open to interpretation.
For me the “shock factor” for a lack of a better word was not in these gory descriptions of mutilations of a child, though I know that would upset most people and it would sit with them for some time. It was the notion the novel first installed, the one in the quotes above, that the child is still present in the house but that she is an apparition between the moments before death and the moments after it, so she appears normal and interactive in that way but at the same time she is a walking demonstration of the aftermath of her killer’s actions. I suppose that’s how the necessary added details connect with the narrative. Charles also sees both versions and instead of handing them to the reader at once, the author slips in the details here and there to prepare us for how and why the characters act a certain way later on. Also again for the desired shock factor in the end that just keeps on adding and adding mercilessly. It’s a foreshadowing in a way for the finale. Not for the faint-hearted readers I guess.
I did enjoy the way the reveals were done in terms of discovering there are multiple ghosts in the house. It was through photographs taken by a journalist or paparazzi come to film the grieving couple. As all that may seem familiar what’s nice here is that the journalist took it upon himself to understand the logic behind the existence of spirits in the house and their intent, to try to save Charles and Laura by providing them with evidence of multiple shots from different angles and places in and of the house. He is the key figure in the narrative prompting an investigation.
The fact that the novel stays away from doors slamming and nightly whispers most of the time and instead works in a more psychological manner with overwhelming feelings and abnormal behavior infesting their clarity, was very nice. The force of evil that the characters faced was more often present inside them, manifesting through impure thoughts and desires to harm and control and abuse, quite directly sexually abuse even. And that was the uneasy part of the novel, the one you know will escalate tremendously by the end. Again there is a shock factor there to show how merciless and impossible to bypass the situation is – there is no hero of the hour, no escape, no last survivors in that sense of the word. We are weak and corruptible and the thoughts of harm are there in our being just waiting to be unlocked, to be guided perhaps. All it takes is a whisper in your ear, an idea.
Overall “Naomi’s Room” is a great read; it’s proper scary, it’s gory, it’s psychological and intense and for such a short read (somewhere around 200 pages, depends on the copy) it serves a complete story with heart-thumping escalation and reveals that keep you on edge while at the same time takes the readers on an emotional ride through loss and grief and insanity. And if like me you don’t really fancy creepy little ghost children, I recommend reading this late at night, under your bed covers if you’re a Kindle user, or under a fragile light in a quiet room. All alone. 10/10