Filler content with fanfares

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #11:-

Christopher Ransom: The Birthing House

(Sphere paperback, 416pp, £6.99)

Earlier this year supermarket visitors were treated to a rare sight – a book that was a) marketed as supernatural horror, to judge by the cover, and b) not by Stephen King or Dean Koontz, sitting on the shelves alongside all the other guaranteed bestsellers that is pretty much all such outlets have to offer nowadays. If memory serves, the same book was included in 3 for 2 offers and the like at places like Borders and Waterstone’s, begging the question has supernatural horror become saleable again?

That book was The Birthing House and it’s the story of Conrad Harrison, who makes an impulse purchase with the money he inherited from his recently deceased father, a house in the small town of Black Earth. Conrad wants to get away from the city and the past, in which he suspects wife Joanna of an affair with his best friend. This is a chance for them to make a new start, but shortly after arriving Joanna departs to go on a work related training course, later phoning to tell him that she is pregnant. The house seems to promote fertility – the neighbours’ daughter Nadia got pregnant there, and so do Conrad’s rare pet snakes, although given no chance to actually mate. He learns from the previous owners, who were continually producing children, not all of whom survived, that it used to be a birthing house, where unmarried women came to have their babies. But he is warned that there is something in the house that will feed on whatever weakness there is in him, and unfortunately Conrad has a very particular weakness that makes him more than vulnerable to the spirit that rules the birthing house.

It’s not on a par with the Shirley Jackson classic, but nonetheless there were things about this book that put me very much in mind of The Haunting of Hill House, such as the quiet effects that mount steadily to a crescendo, with a stream of hints and phenomena that show all is not well in the birthing house, and the idea that Conrad is susceptible to supernatural influences thanks to his past, just as Elaine was in Hill House. Ransom is very clever in the way in which he drip feeds us information, interlocking the various threads of the narrative and deftly inserting Conrad’s back story, in which he loved and lost teenager Holly, with consequences that echo down the years and helped make him the person he is today. He is, in essence, an unrealised father, and the thing that lives in the birthing house taps into that need and exploits it.

The other character studies are equally credible, as with Nadia, who is the archetypal wilful teen, and faithful wife Joanna, doomed by her husband’s suspicions and the ire they bring down on her head. Tricks such as writing scenes in a different style (e.g. Conrad’s scripting of the scene in which he chases Joanna) keep the reader on his toes, and as the climax approaches lines between reality and the supernatural blur, so that we never quite know to what degree Conrad is culpable in what happens, if he is simply a victim or the root cause of the evil. There is violence in the book and it is graphic, but not gratuitous, and also explicit and highly charged sex scenes, again with the lines blurred so that we don’t know if Conrad is simply having a vivid masturbatory fantasy or falling prey to some form of succubus. The final pages, with their vision of the past seeping into and taking control of the present are powerfully delineated, paying off on the premise of the book, that we create the ghosts that haunt us, so it’s impossible to say whether Conrad is a victim of supernatural forces at work or his own tormented psychology.

It’s early to say whether this book and the promotional push behind it represent any sustainable rebirth of interest in the field of supernatural horror, but what I can say with certainty is that Christopher Ransom’s work is worthy of the effort made on its behalf and hopefully will repay Sphere’s investment. The Birthing House is a solidly structured novel, one that plays on the traditional tropes of the haunted house sub-genre but also does enough that is different and innovative to merit serious consideration in its own right, with scenes that are graphically unsettling while also on occasion being genuinely creepy.

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