Quiet horror is, to me, the most effective style of horror, especially when it comes to written horror. Shocks, gore, jump scares—when done right, those things work in the moment. But quiet horror, when done right, lingers. Stays with you. Comes back to you at the worst (i.e., the best) possible times, like when you’re just about to drift off to sleep and you hear a soft thump behind the closet door, or when you catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye that disappears when you look straight at it. Shock hits you and then wears off a second later and you’re laughing, shaking your head, saying “They got me again.” Quiet horror hangs around, and when it comes back to you, nobody is laughing.
Quiet horror is tension and dread, and tension and dread is what Ania Ahlborn does best. Tension and dread saturate each and every page of “I Call Upon Thee,” the second of two novellas that make up her new release Apart in the Dark. Because I already reviewed the first novella, “The Pretty Ones,” a while back on my October Country blog, I’m just going to leave a link to it here (Spoiler Alert: I liked it a lot) and concentrate instead on “I Call Upon Thee,” previously released as a Kindle single in 2017 but new to me as part of this collection.
“I Call Upon Thee” is the story of Maggie Olsen, forced to return to her childhood home in the wake of a family tragedy. Tragedy is something Maggie and her sisters, Arlen and Brynn, are quite familiar with. Both of their parents died awful deaths, and now Brynn is gone as well. Suicide. Coming home forces Maggie to face the deaths of her parents again; it also forces her to face a lingering darkness in the house, a presence that she herself may be responsible for.
Ahlborn doesn’t tip her supernatural hand right away; when she does, she trots out a couple of tried-and-true horror tropes, and I’ll admit I lost faith for about half a second. Shame on me. Ahlborn isn’t out to reinvent the wheel here—she’s out to tell a good, scary story. At that, she succeeds. I won’t give away the tropes or how she uses them, but by keeping the Olsen family’s drama front and center, she makes it all work. You may get pissed at Maggie for some of the things she does, and you may find Arlen and her kids insufferable at times, but you’ll end up giving a damn about all of them. Horror fiction works best when you worry for the characters at the heart of the story, and you’ll worry for the remains of this beleaguered family. Before it’s over, you’ll worry plenty.
“I Call Upon Thee” wraps up in predictable but effective fashion, but it’s the Author’s Note that immediately follows that has stuck with me. In it, Ahlborn gives the standard “What you’ve just read is fiction” disclaimer, followed by a chilling recitation of the parts of the story she says are actually true. I don’t know if it’s truly a confessional or just smart brand-building on the author’s part, but either way it works for me.
“I Call Upon Thee” is genuinely scary, and that’s the highest compliment I can give it. As part of Apart in the Dark, it’s the knockout punch that follows the sharp jab of “The Pretty Ones.” Ania Ahlborn, already pretty damn good, has gotten better. I can’t wait to see what she does next.