a review by Chris Hayes-Kossmann
The problem with writing a horror novel and then slapping the words “You will never forget the twist” on the cover is that the novel becomes all about the twist. No matter how believable the characters, or how terrifying the events, if the twist doesn’t live up to expectations then the book has been prematurely torpedoed. Such is the problem with The People Next Door by Christopher Ransom, in that it doesn’t actually have a twist.
The People Next Door is a horror/suspense novel set in quiet American suburbia, and it attempts a more serious and bloody take on the urban fantasy genre. The novel opens with a suspenseful little scene where a young girl, running away from home, thumbs a lift from a petrol station and finds herself trapped by a superlatively creepy father-and-mother duo. That same creepiness vanishes by the time we hit chapter two, and are introduced to our primary cast; a family of generally unlikeable middle class white folk who spend most of their time complaining about each other while remaining oblivious to the threats around them. The father of the family, Andrew, is disturbed by his new neighbours, the titular people next door. They’re all too quiet for their neighbourhood, too withdrawn. They avoid both conversation, and the light. Are they hiding some dark secret? (Yes, of course.) Will there be deaths aplenty and lots of handy exposition? (Yes, of course.)
The murders start early and don’t stop the for length of the book, although the author relies on the old switcheroo far too often. Think that character’s dead? Nope, only a dream. Or a premonition. Or a concussion induced hallucination. The prose is solid but unexciting, and isn’t really enough to keep casual readers hanging on long enough to discover the twist… which, as it turns out, isn’t much of a revelation. The nature of the people next door is revealed around halfway through the novel, but most regular readers of speculative fiction will be able to guess both the twist and the conclusion of the novel based purely on the blurb.
Can I lay down a spoiler here? Please? Look away if you still have any intention of reading this book. Nuclear vampire zombies. That’s it.
If you’re a gore hound then there might be enough in The People Next Door to keep you hooked, but for me, the end result of all these visions, unlikeable characters and lacklustre plotting is a book that simply isn’t scary. Had I read the opening chapter as a short story, I would have been satisfied. Instead I was forced to hang on through chapters of cludgy prose, waiting for the twist that never came.
Originally published in Dark Matter issue 6, November 2011. This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.