Monday, November 05, 2012

Book Review: Elsewhere, by William Peter Blatty

(This review refers to the 1999 version, included in the anthology 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense, not to the 2009 reissue in hardback. I am unsure if there are substantive differences in the text.)

Elsewhere is an eerie little haunted-house story strong on atmospherics and clever dialogue, but one which ultimately disappoints with a pretty stock resolution.

Ambitious real estate agent Joan Freeboard is offered a huge fee if she can sell Elsewhere, a notoriously haunted mansion on an island in the Hudson river. Known as the scene of a particularly gruesome murder-suicide, even the family heirs refuse to live in it, decamping to Italy and putting it on the market.

Joan knows she has to do something to dispel the ridiculous rumors, so in order to clear the house's reputation she hatches a clever PR plan: she retains the services of a psychic, an occult expert from NYU, and her closest friend, award-winning but creatively blocked writer Terence Dare, to spend five days with her at Elsewhere. If all goes well, they can debunk the ghost stories, and Terence can break his dry spell by writing an account of the experiment for a high-profile magazine -- which will also serve as excellent publicity for the house's sale. Win-win, right?

Needless to say, things don't go as planned. But I'll bet you expected that. (At least you did if you've ever read The Haunting of Hill House.)

And that's the real problem with Elsewhere: it's just a bit too predictable to actually be scary. Perhaps that's unfair, since the novella was originally published in 1999 -- earlier than some of the works it ultimately feels derivative of. But if you're up on your contemporary horror, you can see the end coming from miles away. This is especially irritating because, a) we all know Blatty is fully capable of scaring the crap out of readers; and b) because the story's setup seems so obvious you're sure the twist simply can't be what you think it is. And yet.

Elsewhere was a perfectly fine way to while away a Sunday afternoon, and I'm not sorry I read it; I just wish I'd read it before subsequent works made it essentially redundant.

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