Book Review: Within These Walls
Ania Ahlborn's new horror novel with a familiar, true-life villain
July 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm
Stranger than fiction is more than a cliche. Many stories about modern serial killers and murderers read more like fiction than fact: Jack the Ripper, BTK, Jeffrey Dahmer. But none has been more fascinating, or frightening, than that of Charles Manson. Manson was able to cultivate a group of followers made of disillusioned young men and women into his very own murderous cult. (I guess Manson didn’t like the connotations of the word “cult” so they actually referred to themselves as a “family,” but you can paint shit gold and it will still be shit). This cult carried out the famous Sharon Tate mass murder, a killing that ending with five dead bodies, including Sharon’s unborn child. Ania Ahlborn borrows from the horrors of history in her novel Within These Walls.
Within These Walls follows Lucas Graham, a down-on-his-luck true crime author. At a particularly low point in his life, Lucas receives a letter from notorious mass murderer Jeffrey Halcomb, who wishes to break his decades-long silence. Halcomb makes two requests: the interviews must take place within a specified time frame, and Lucas must live in the home where Halcomb’s murders took place. As Lucas faces poverty and a failing marriage, he decides to put all his eggs in Jeffrey Halcomb’s basket. He packs up his teenage daughter, Virginia (or Jeanie, or Vee — her name changes a lot), and they move across the country to Washington state to live in a house that at the very least is dripping in bad mojo. But, of course, that isn’t the least of what’s wrong with the house.
Another story weaves through Within These Walls. The story is of Audra Snow, a pregnant woman who Halcomb will eventually murder (along with several others). Audra invites a charismatic man (Jeffrey Halcomb) and his “family” of disillusioned young men and women to live in her home and fill up the emptiness in her heart. In order to maintain the theme of name confusion, Halcomb changes Audra’s name to Avis the moment he walks through the door. Her life becomes entangled with Halcomb and his followers, ultimately ending in the murder of Audra and her unborn child (sound familiar?).
The pacing of the novel was a bit slow for me, but not enough to deter anyone from reading Within These Walls. However, Ahlborn’s greatest, and weakest, aspects of her novel are the characters. Lucas and Virginia are essentially stock characters that you’ve met time and time again in various novels/films/plays/shows. Lucas is a singularly-focused man, obsessed with writing the true crime novel that will bring him back to authorial stardom. Virginia is obsessed with herself and her life. She makes it perfectly clear that her parents ruined her life and is generally very unhelpful as things at the house begins to get more and more ominous.
Halcomb and Audra, on the other hand, are beautifully-written characters. Audra’s naievety and desperate desire to please Halcomb and his “family” are so palpable that you completely understand what made her such an easy target for him. And Halcomb’s transformation from charismatic leader to lover to sinister murderer is the thrill ride that horror novel enthusiasts look for. These characters have the depth that Lucas and Virginia lack. Even though you know how Audra’s story is going to end, you can’t help but get wrapped up in her narrative.
Ahlborn uses temporal shifts between the Lucas/Virginia story and the Halcomb/Audra story to great effect. More interestingly, she also uses newspaper articles, multiple points of views, and field notes from paranormal experts investigating Audra’s house to give you the full picture of what’s going on. I’ve never read that in a story before, and it was a real treat.
I especially recommend Within These Walls to fans of Ahlborn’s other novels. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as The Bird Eater, but it still has enough creepiness and depth to be considered a solid horror novel. While the characters are not the strong point of the novel, Ahlborn’s borrowing of history paints a better picture of evil in the reader’s mind than any fictional villain could ever compete with. Halcomb comes across as a flesh-and-blood, terrifying man. More than anything else, Ahlborn’s flair for conveying time and perspective make this novel really shine. Just make sure you leave the lights on when you read.
3.5 out of 5 Crones
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub Date: April 2015