Five high school seniors are lured into a game in which their souls are at stake.
Maxwell Cartwright Jr., who reads like a demonic cross between the Goblin King and the Jigsaw killer from the Saw film franchise, traps five classmates in his cursed house, forcing them to play his game to win their freedom and escape death. White alpha girl Ashley, white goth boy Dylan, white fashion artist Gretchen, black basketball jock Paul, and shy white Violet eventually work together to make their way through room after room of horrors, until each is forced to confront both their most shameful secrets and their swiftly approaching demise. Atwood debuts with a hefty serving of uncanny gore and alluring malevolence, but missteps and lack of development undercut the fright. Disorienting leaps from one first-person–perspective chapter to another undermine the narrative urgency, repeatedly stalling the plot so each of the five protagonists can have a turn at soliloquizing underdeveloped terror into overwritten tedium. And while some of the teens’ character-motivating secrets—right-wing Ashley’s closeted queerness and crush on nemesis Gretchen, Gretchen’s bravado-shielded shame about her poverty, and Violet’s power-disparate sexual relationship with a teacher—bring the high stakes and moral complexity horror enthusiasts expect, the rest underwhelm. Dylan’s home life as a wealthy evangelical and Paul’s wonderfully geeky love of Shakespeare feel like lazy afterthoughts in comparison.
Horror fans will find many classic and campy tropes but little substance. (Horror. 13-17)