As I mentioned in my previous review of Michael R. Collings’ STATIC!, I think that he’s a sadly under-rated horror novelist. THE HOUSE BEYOND THE HILL is another of his horror novels, this one, like STATIC!, also set in the prosaic L.A. suburb of Tamarind Valley. (There is also a third novel set in Tamarind Valley, THE SLAB, though I have not yet read it.)
Please note: some plot spoilers follow, though I promise not to wreck every twist and turn in the novel.
The novel begins with a rash of random highway shootings in the Los Angeles area. I had thought these would be the focus of the entire book, and that would have been just fine, but it rapidly becomes apparent that these shootings are merely a single manifestation of a much greater source of evil. A troop of Boy Scouts camping nearby is soon butchered in a horrific attack. Others in this bucolic suburb also begin to die in strange, gruesome ways and the community naturally becomes gripped with terror. The identity of the perpetrator(s) of these attacks is entirely unknown. The authorities are virtually powerless, and it falls to five unlikely heroes who realize that there is more to the killings than meets the eye – a young married couple, one of the surviving Boy Scouts who narrowly escaped death, and a pair of young Mormon missionaries – to save the day.
I found THE HOUSE BEYOND THE HILL to be in some ways reminiscent of a lower-key version of Stephen King’s IT. HOUSE bears some of the same themes as IT. In both novels, a great evil lurks in a town, spreading fear and death in its wake, while a small band of heroic – though physically fragile – characters discover what is going on and decide to brave the dangers in order to defeat the evil force. These protagonists have great mental and emotional fortitude, even though physically they are no match for the villain. Ultimately they must beard the lion in its own den and defeat the source of evil – an unclean spirit that preys on the fear of its victims – in ritualized fashion. The characters in HOUSE are all convincingly portrayed and their fears and uncertainties are palpable. The horrors and violence they face likewise well-drawn. I’d have liked to see the final ritual confrontation between the protagonists and the antagonist drawn out just a bit more, as their ultimate victory was just a little too pat for my liking.
I found HOUSE’s subtle use of the idea of spirit possession as the instrument for the evil force’s activities to be both effective and a nice twist on what could have been a by-the-numbers of a madman on the loose sort of story. That idea that there really is a monster out there, but it can mostly only take direct, physical action by possessing the bodies of your friends and loved ones is a horrific one that has always worked well for me. (Here, I’m reminded of the BLAIR WITCH and PARANORMAL ACTIVITIES films which use a similar idea.) I think the reason why the idea has such poignancy for me is that we can all imagine how horrifying it would be if we found ourselves no longer in control of our own bodies, or that we had committed violent, unspeakable acts – especially against our friends and loved ones – without even remembering.
I enjoyed THE HOUSE BEYOND THE HILL immensely and recommend it without reservation. As I noted, I wished that the final confrontation had been dragged out a bit, as I’d have liked to see some additional detail on the source of evil’s defeat. That does not in any way prevent full enjoyment of the novel. Maybe it’s just that I want to see these protagonists – and antagonist – return! Tamarind Valley might not be a place any of us would like to live, but it’s sure fun to visit (as a reader). Here’s hoping that Collings isn’t done with his Tamarind Valley sequence.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers