By David Annandale
Dundurn Press, 304 pages, $23
Winnipeg writer David Annandale's fourth novel is the kind of old-fashioned haunted-house story that horror fans have been waiting for. Unlike most modern novels, it is actually quite scary.
Annandale, a professor of literature and film at the University of Manitoba, is well on his way to becoming one of Winnipeg's more prolific writers.
Best known for his series of thrillers starring female spy Jen Blaylock (Crownfire, Kornukopia, and The Valedictorians, all published by Winnipeg-based Turnstone Press), Annandale also writes fiction for the Warhammer 40,000 fantasy universe.
He has published a number of spooky short stories, but Gethsemane Hall, from Toronto-based Dundurn Press, is his first full-length horror novel.
Winnipeg horror writer Susie Moloney, who has published four supernatural thrillers, most recently last year's The Thirteen, may have to watch her back.
Annandale's titular Gethsemane Hall is an ancestral mansion in the small British town of Roseminster. Having belonged to the wealthy and eminent Gray family for generations, it has garnered a hallowed reputation among ghost hunters since it is supposedly built upon the resting place of Saint Rose the Evangelist.
After a CIA agent commits suicide in the empty house, Gethsemane Hall draws the attention of spiritualists, skeptics, religious devotees and the rest of the CIA.
Richard Gray, suffering a crisis of faith after losing his wife and daughter, decides to assemble a team of experts (who are sure to butt heads) and lets them run loose in the house. He invites a naïve but passionate ghost hunter, a veteran debunker, his religious best friend, and another CIA agent, Louise Meacham, to investigate the house.
Gray's growing obsession with the hall is sure to remind readers of Jack Torrance's deterioration in Stephen King's The Shining, and indeed, fans of that novel will find lots to like about Gethsemane Hall.
The novel's opening focuses on Gray, but this is really Louise Meacham's story. Considering that all of Annandale's other novels centre on a similar female spy, it may seem at first glance that he has decided not to stray too far from familiar territory.
But Meacham is a fine character who fits in nicely here and she provides an engaging perspective through which the reader gets to experience many of the hall's mysteries.
For impatient readers or those more accustomed to Freddy and Jason movies, the novel's pace will likely seem slow (it takes 100 pages to get the team of investigators into the house). But Annandale proves to be an expert of the long setup, making the eventual scares much more chilling.
Like many of the best horror classics, this novel rewards patience and careful attention.
Most of the novel takes place within the hall itself, and the setting has all the trappings of vintage haunted-house spookiness. The house has long hallways, a great many staircases, even a chapel and, underneath that, an ancient crypt.
But there are also marks of real originality. Annandale knows all the classics but also makes great use of modern touches. The conventions of many 19th-century scary stories work well alongside the kind of scares that normally turn up in found-footage-style films.
And the scares are never cheap or predictable. Annandale knows all the conventions of the genre, yes, but he avoids the clichés; there are no empty-headed blonds running up the stairs when they should go out the front door. Indeed, the novel's female protagonist is a long way off from being helpless.
H.P. Lovecraft is a definite influence here. But in complete contrast to Lovecraft, who did his best to purge his work of symbols and iconography from recognizable religions, Annandale has built a sense of otherworldly and sublime dread using Christian dogma and theology. And the result is satisfyingly chilling.
Fans of literary horror have been waiting for a haunted-house story this smart for a long time.
Keith Cadieux teaches English literature and creative writing at the University of Winnipeg.