I love horror stories in any format: film, print, music*, you name it. Suspense tends to frighten me more than gore or scare-jumps; psychological horror makes my skin crawl to a degree that Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees has never even come close to approaching. With hardly any violence at all, the tension in the movie Session 9 is so powerful that it makes me physically nauseous, and it’s become the bar to which I compare all horror stories. Until today, the movies Shutter** and House of the Devil were the only others that had reached the I’m-so-scared-I-might-actually-throw-up heights of Session 9, but now, Anna Collomore’s The Ruining has become the first book to enter those most hallowed ranks***.
The set-up—a girl gets a job nannying for a privileged family; creepiness ensues—suggests yet another re-imagining of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, but The Ruining actually draws on a far-more disturbing source: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Like The Yellow Wallpaper, The Ruining is hugely claustrophobic—an impressive feat, as the feeling comes more from a loss of privacy than from being trapped in a small space—and like The Yellow Wallpaper’s heroine, college freshman Annie Phillips is a completely unreliable narrator. As she gets more uncomfortable, as she begins to find her surroundings more oppressive, it becomes harder and harder to tell what is real and what is imagined.
It takes Collomore a few chapters to get into her groove—her writing feels a bit stiff and self-conscious at first—but after that, WOW. SHE HITS IT. The first four-fifths of the book are AWESOME. Super-taut tension; icky, squicky uncomfortable encounters; scene after scene after scene that result in Annie (and the reader) feeling off-balance and uncomfortable. The romance isn’t entirely believable, but Annie’s confused narration makes that work in the book’s favor, and that brings me to the really fun part.
The last fifth will make great material for debate. Originally, I read it as a straight-up weak ending: it’s a strangely discordant, misty sort of happy ending, and the resolution comes about through no action on Annie’s part. It’s disheartening, as so much of the story deals with the loss of her agency, to never see her take any initiative, to reclaim that agency.
But later, it occurred to me that that soft-focus happy ending may have been a subtly-insidious true horror of an ending: like The Stepford Wives, it looks pretty on the surface, but underneath, it’s...awful. I haven’t quite made up my mind about which reading I prefer, or, for that matter, which one the author intended. I’m really looking forward to talking about this one, so do let me know what you think!
*Well, with music it’s less horror and more noir, but you get my point.
**The 2004 Thai one, not the American remake with Joshua Jackson.
***I’m not exaggerating about my discomfort while reading: at one point, my husband asked me if I was feeling okay. I responded by saying, “Remember Session 9?” and holding up the book. He understood immediately.