I love “quiet horror.” I love a book filled with tension, atmosphere, and that creeping-up-on-you sense of unease where you can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong, but you know something is.
Here’s the thing: eventually, all that atmosphere and tension and unease has to pay off. When it does, it’s magic. When it doesn’t, it’s like cracking open a cold soft drink only to find that it’s gone flat.
Mormama, I’m sorry to say, is the flat soft drink of haunted house books.
Kit Reed, an accomplished and award-winning author, has assembled all of the elements needed for a successful haunted house novel. There’s the structure itself, a crumbling Florida mansion built on unsettled ground, a monument to the excessive Southern-belle aesthetic of its late proprietess, Manette Ellis; there’s the house’s shady history, consisting of the deaths of almost all of the men who have dwelled there; there are the current, creepy occupants, three bickering sisters living out their last days as the house’s caretakers; there are the newcomers, two loose-end family members who find themselves, under difficult circumstances, living in the old family place; and there’s The Mystery—in this case a man named Dell Duval, an amnesiac living under the back porch, trying to figure out what has called him to this particular place.
Unfortunately, Reed never manages to tie these disparate elements together. What’s missing is a common element of danger, some threat that either binds the living and the dead, or faces them off against each other. We’re told that bad things happen to the men who live there, yet young Theo (who arrives at the house with his mother early in the book) never seems to be in any particular danger, and the only spirit he encounters is “Mormama,” Manette’s mother, the disembodied voice of warning that keeps telling us bad things are afoot. Dell, too, eases through much of the novel unscathed, spending most of his time trying to determine why he’s there (a question for which we never truly get a satisfactory answer).
Reed varies her writing style from character to character, which is effective in helping the reader juggle the large cast, but the voices (particularly Theo’s) don’t always ring true. The deliberate pace set by Reed is usually an asset in layering the tension in a novel like this, building dread by taking readers though a series of ghostly sightings and inexplicable incidents. Disappointingly, it’s employed here solely to reveal the backstory of the house and it’s occupants. We (slowly) get the idea that this was once a scary place to live, but to its current occupants it’s just a suffocating old trap which circumstances, rather than spirits, prevent them from leaving.
Ultimately, Mormama fails at the most critical element required for a successful haunted house novel—it’s just not scary.