Alone in the darkness again. The room changed in appearance. The walls and ceiling seemed closer, almost suffocating him. Every object he could make out looked like a figure: the chair resembled a crouched-down child, the dressing-gown hooked behind the door reminded him of a hanging corpse, and he could swear that there were two feet sticking out from under the curtains. The loneliness of the house crept all around him, and the fear had well and truly returned. The fact that Nicky was right beside him meant nothing. He had been abandoned and left to face the house that he had loved, yet again.
Here’s a thing: someone asked me recently how could I believe in ghosts? How? You’re a sciencey person! Or something. Truth is I believe in ghosts in the same way I believe in time travel, interplanetary adventures and really huge giant sharks. It’s not a fact but it’d be really, really cool if it was. So, I’m in the middle of a massive horror binge. I have no idea why, but having not read horror since my teenage Steven King obsession I’ve suddenly rediscovered it over the past couple of weeks. It seems, and I could be totally wrong here, that a lot of horror writing comes in quite condensed packages making it easy to read snippets here and there. Falling into that category is this novella by Steven Jenkins, a very short piece set over 14 days.
Richard is addicted to his work. Or he’s addicted to the sense of satisfaction he gets from being indispensable to his work. Which turns out to not actually be the case when he takes an odd turn at the office one day and is instructed to take two weeks’ leave on medical advice. His wife Nicky, desperate to have him actually rest, hides his laptop and modem forcing him to stay offline. After his boss hangs up on him during a phone call on the first of the 14 days, Richard realises he really has to take this medical advice seriously and unplug and reboot himself. What follows is a minute, blow by blow account of his growing boredom, restlessness and finally loneliness. He starts a movie, heads to the kitchen to get something to eat, starts vacuuming but gives up halfway through, goes back to the kitchen, falls asleep on the couch, and so forth for so much of this novel. Gradually he starts to believe that the crushing loneliness and isolation he feels is emanating from the house itself. And then he starts to see things.
This is a risky novel for a lot of reasons. By documenting the minutae of Richard’s hideous boredom Jenkins could have turned off a lot of readers. But he makes it work as a gripping psychological thriller. As Richard’s perception of the house becomes more wracked with fear, and the apparitions become more inexplicable, the novel’s momentum belies the snail’s pace of the narrative. That slow build of tension and fear is what makes horror such a joy to delve into.
I love a ghost story but it seems as soon as the mystery has a resolution I become unable to suspend my disbelief. I felt just that way with this one, I think I would have preferred the mystery be left open ended, though the end was neat and tidy. Maybe I just don’t like neat and tidy? I really disliked Nicky’s reaction to Richard’s fear, particularly since a head injury plus visions would a logical cause for alarm whether you believed in the supernatural or not. Regardless, this is a fun, quick ghost story and worth checking out.
Fourteen Days, Steven Jenkins: three stars.
Read it when: you’re short on time, you want to remember how great a simple ghost story can be.