Filler content with old black magic

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #15:-

THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC: ALEXANDRA SOKOLOFF

Alexandra Sokoloff is an American writer of supernatural thrillers whose work reminds me very much of Jonathan Aycliffe, with its strong plotting, well drawn characters and solid grounding of events in the everyday, but written with a distinctive voice that quietly and authoritatively enfolds the reader, beguiles him or her with a mephistophelean suavity and charm. The stories she tells us, the bargains she offers her characters, sound so plausible, but there is always a sting in the tail.

The Harrowing (Piatkus pb, 280pp, £5.99) bears witness to Sokoloff’s antecedents as a screenwriter, with a template plot that puts an assortment of intriguingly oddball teens in peril and an ending that leaves open the possibility of a sequel, but that’s to simplify what is an impressively assured debut, one that was nominated for a Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel on its publication in the US. Now it’s the turn of readers in the UK to meet and greet this talented writer.

Robin Stone is an outsider at prestigious Baird College, only there thanks to an estranged father stumping up the tuition fees to assuage his guilt. She has nothing in common with the other students, especially her queen bitch room mate Waverly. When the Thanksgiving weekend arrives Robin decides not to go home to her whining mother, anticipating that she will have Mendenhall, a hundred year old building that serves as a student residence hall, all to herself, and in solitude find some sort of resolution for her troubles. However, solitude eludes her – Goth chick Lisa, jock Patrick, musician Cain and the scholastic Martin all stay on for reasons of their own. When somebody finds a Ouija board and suggests they play all of them agree, though not expecting anything to happen, and this would be a very short book if that were the case. What actually happens is they make contact with an entity presenting itself as the ghost of a young man who died decades ago in a fire at Mendenhall. A series of inexplicable events follow, and the five become convinced that the entity is attacking them, wants them all to die, just as it may have caused previous deaths.

Fast paced and compelling, The Harrowing combines a sharp understanding of supernatural fiction and its traditions with modern filmic ploys, such as the group of photogenic young people in peril. As far as the latter goes, Sokoloff is superb at fleshing out the characters, raising them above the level of cannon fodder and making us care, with each of her cast fully drawn and given strengths and vulnerabilities – Martin who has lost his faith, and is willing to accept the entity if it gives him back his belief in God, a position that sees him willing to sacrifice the others; the sceptic Cain who is led to an understanding of what is going on, even though he wants to lay it all at the hands of somebody else; jock Patrick who is so much better than girlfriend Waverly, and slowly coming to a realisation of his own value, that he does not want to be the person he has become; extrovert Lisa, who projects a worldly wise aura, but is a scared little girl at heart, her admission of need and the revelation of what she is enduring one of the most touching moments in the book. And then there is Robin, with her dysfunctional family and suicidal impulses, but underlying that a moral core and solid foundation that serves her well. Each of them is weak in some way and this makes them vulnerable to the entity’s machinations, but each has the strength within them to rise above their fear, to achieve remarkable things, as when the terrified Robin and Lisa go inside a deserted Mendenhall at night to face down their nemesis. Sokoloff makes us believe in them completely, so that we never doubt what is happening and the characters’ motives drive the narrative forward, as each realises he or she has bitten off more than they can chew, that what started as a harmless bit of fun, a game, has become a deadly reality.

The second great strength of The Harrowing is the narrative flow, with events unfolding at a natural pace, clues seeded in the text and a credible attitude of scepticism on the part of the dramatis personae. The initial scenes with the Ouija board are riveting: words spelled out and the characters staring suspiciously at each other, making excuses and accusations, oppositions within the group and personality clashes bubbling to the surface, but all the same a slow and gradual shift to belief. Doubt is the enemy of these young people, and only when they accept what is happening is any form of effective resistance possible. The entity starts by posing as their friend, luring them in with the bait of knowledge, offering favours, taking their mocking statements at face value and giving them whatever they ask for, though in a way they cannot have anticipated. And then the trap springs shut and they finally discover what is in the room with them, what they have unleashed on the world, with texts from Hebrew mysticism to underpin the revelation. As the story unfolds, ever faster now, Sokoloff subjects her characters to a barrage of special effects, each of which will feel familiar to devotees of films like Poltergeist and The Entity – the wrecked room with furniture thrown all around, the sexual assault from an invisible presence, the banishing ceremony in which a corpse speaks – but the cumulative effect cannot be denied, with each frisson, each fresh supernatural manifestation wracking the tension up that extra notch, the violence of the entity steadily escalating. With the first death, Robin and the others find themselves placed between a rock and a hard place, the entity on one side and a suspicious constabulary on the other, and drastic measures called for.

In The Harrowing Sokoloff delivers a master class in supernatural fiction and the rhythms of storytelling, one which combines the sensitivity and subtlety of Shirley Jackson with the modern sensibility of a writer who has cut her creative teeth in the crucible of Hollywood.

Follow up novel The Price (Piatkus pb, 310pp, £6.99) tackles another great theme of the supernatural, that of the ‘deal with the Devil’, though again Sokoloff gives it her own emphasis and allows room for ambiguity, so that everything which takes place can either be accepted at face value or attributed to the protagonist’s fractured mental state.

District Attorney Will Sullivan is a liberal politician running for Governor, and with a future that seems to stretch to the White House, but none of that matters now because his daughter Sydney is ill with a brain tumour and likely to die. Will and wife Joanna abandon the campaign trail to move into the children’s wing of Boston’s labyrinthine Briarwood Medical Center (based on Longwood Medical Area, a concentration of several hospitals in Boston, linked by tunnels) and be with their daughter. It is there that he meets Salk, who presents himself as a counsellor on the staff, though nothing is ever stated. Salk drops dark hints at some sort of deal, but will not commit himself. Will sees him talking to other patients and their loved ones, people who then make miraculous recoveries, though it appears at a price – a famous singer whose child is cured, while she loses her voice; a fatally wounded policeman who survives surgery, though his wife loses their baby. Then Sydney makes her own unexpected recovery, and in the days that follow Will finds his wife distancing herself from him and acting strangely, portents of something terrible that may have taken place.

At the heart of this book is one of the greatest dilemmas to face human beings, how to cope with the knowledge of your child’s impending death. For reader and characters alike the question is posed as to what you/they are prepared to do to avert such a terrible event. And here Sokoloff provides two very different responses: while Will searches for a solution to an intellectual puzzle, a key to the lock of understanding, Joanna acts on faith and gut instinct, willing to sacrifice everything to save her daughter’s life, to endure any pain so that the child can be spared.

That’s one interpretation.

The Harrowing had an ensemble cast but The Price is more of a one-man show, told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Will Sullivan, with everything filtered through his perceptions, and of course raising questions as to how reliable a narrator Will is. As the story unfolds it seems that Will’s life grows ever more complex and labyrinthine, a mirror image of the building in which most of the story’s action takes place. Briarwood itself becomes a character in the story, with the sense of stage scenery, false walls behind which lurks a far grimmer reality, hidden parts into which it seems only Will can venture, places where he sees unsettling visions of nuns in procession and other things that logic tells him seem unnatural, inexplicable. Slowly, step by step, as he delves into the web of incident constructed around him, the certainties Will felt sure of begin to unravel and he is led to a realisation of what has happened and who Salk really is, with the confrontation between the two the climax of the book, beautifully understated and on the surface little more than a loaded conversation, but beneath a clash between competing ideologies and belief systems.

But of course, it could all be real only in Will’s mind, those signs and portents, clues and false trails, just the symptoms of his illness.

The Price takes an old idea and injects it with an originality and perspective that is entirely Sokoloff’s own, resulting in a thoroughly modern variant on the Faustian pact, one in which medical science and politics collide. Sokoloff uses this template to craft a convincing psychological tale, with a father, and by implication the reader also, put to the test and possibly found wanting. It is an eminently readable and gripping novel, one that held my attention all the way, never once overplaying its hand or trying too hard.

The bottom line, as they say in Hollywood, is that I loved both The Harrowing and The Price, and I suspect that so will anyone else who enjoys well-crafted supernatural fiction. First and foremost, Sokoloff is a storyteller, and from the evidence of these books a highly gifted one at that, a writer who will bring distinction and literary credibility to whichever genre she elects to work in. We’re lucky that it happens to be horror.

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