Monday, February 03, 2014

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Oh, Penn Station bookstore, why are you so awful? I wandered around looking for something to buy in paperback and not a thing caught my eye until I saw Lauren Beukes' name popping out from the spine of The Shining Girls. I have been meaning to read her for awhile, so I bought it, hoping for a good escape from reality during a recent Philly trip.

I don't read jacket copy, so when I dove into the story about a time-traveling serial killer I was disappointed to find that it wasn't inspired by The Shining.  Where my supposition came from, who knows, but those two books do have one common theme--an evil house.

When I was a child, I loved to turn off the lights, close my myopic eyes and wander the house I grew up in.  I do the same now. Dreams are stuffed with the houses of relatives and childhood friends. I contain many houses and some of them are traps.

Is the house in The Shining Girls a trap for a certain kind of man or did the house itself come from his desires? Well, hm.

Though the pacing is excellent, The Shining Girls doesn't hold together in the end for a few reasons. The book has a Chicago setting, it really could have been set Major Anycity, U.S.A. and the Chicago-y things that do appear just seem like excuses to show the research that went into them appearing in the first place, as do some of the characters. Is it cool that there is a pre-legal abortion provider's POV included? Yes. But since we only get a little time with each of the victims--with the exception of out final girl, Kirby, who survived a childhood attack by Harper, the killer--the inclusion of that fact about her detracts from the otherwise excellent characterization. There are too many POVs, period. I really appreciate the work it must have taken to give each victim a individual voice and make the violence done to each less about the killer and more about what was taken from the world when each was killed. But we spend too much time with Harper for this to work and the result is distracting. A focus on Harper and the house, just the house, or our final girl, alone or in opposition to either, would have been considerably deeper and more meaningful to me and allowed Beukes's excellent attention to the telling detail to work a longer lasting magic. While I understand that this organization makes the time-travel element easier to follow, it also makes it less weird and, therefore, less interesting.

And now we've come to my major issue with The Shining Girls: The thing that pushes the book from straight horror into SF territory, the time travel element, doesn't feel integral to the plot. Why do these women have to be from different times for the murders to mean something to the killer or to the house? If it were simply a matter of providing a way to escape from the consequences of murdering another person, why aren't there more murders in the book? Harper's dull acceptance of time travel tells us a little about him, but nothing we couldn't learn in another way. When Kirby, who, let's remember, has had her entire life bounded by having been chosen by the house, finally encounters the house and its door to other times, she isn't tempted by the power at all.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed reading this book. I wanted to get to the end and stayed up until four in the morning to do so. But the more I thought about the book after that frenzied night, the plot followed through to its end, the less satisfied I became.

Some off-the-top-of-my-head additional reading:
The best: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

A recent evil house story on Pseudopod: The Unfinished Room by Joshua Rex, read by Bob Eccles. (explicit child murder in this one)

An examination of horror tropes with an emphasis on bad houses: Horror 101, heard on Tales to Terrify


shaymo said...

"I contain many houses and some of them are traps." if there ever were words to have tattooed on a person...

Carrie said...

yeah, been thinking a lot about trap houses. the ones inside of me, especially. i wish that was what this book had been about!