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Currently Browsing: Horror

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

roomsLauren Oliver has been on my radar ever since I read her excellent YA novel, Before I Fall. I wasn’t crazy about Delirium, and never bothered with the sequels. But when I heard she was releasing a horror novel for adults just in time for Halloween, I decided to give her another go. From the first few pages, I fell in love with Rooms, and it hooked me from start to finish. I was, therefore, surprised to see it receiving overall lukewarm reviews. Clearly it’s not for everyone. But let me take a few moments to explain why it appealed to me, and why it may appeal to you, too.

The premise is simple enough. Wealthy Richard Walker has passed away, and now his estranged family must travel to his country house, their former home, to put his affairs in order and claim their inheritance. Throw in a ghost or two, and you’ve got a classic set-up for a haunted house story (for similar premises, see; Mr. Humphreys & His Inheritance, House of Echoes, The Woman In Black, Thirteen Ghosts… actually, do yourself a favor and don’t see Thirteen Ghosts). But what makes this story unique is that it’s less about the characters’ (limited) interactions with the ghosts, and more about how they relate to one another. Rooms is, first and foremost, a family drama, and through all the twists and turns it never loses its focus.

Consequently, don’t expect many scares. This is not horror in the traditional sense. Although it has its moments of creepiness, the tone is more bleak than frightening. And that’s fine by me. The more I let the story sink in, the more unsettling it became. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ghosts, who are condemned to spend their afterlife within a house containing their most dismal and horrific memories. That’s a scary thought. Not scary in the same way as, say, Pennywise the clown. It’s not going to make you sleep with the lights on. It may, however, make you sleep a little less soundly.

So, is Rooms a horror story? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The heart of the book lies within the characters. Although this is Oliver’s first adult novel, it’s not a complete departure from YA. Sixteen-year-old Trenton is (arguably) the novel’s protagonist. And, man, “troubled teen” doesn’t even begin to describe him. He’s moody, judgmental, and spends most of the novel plotting his suicide. Free from YA restraints, Oliver takes the reader deep into his head. Sometimes, uncomfortably deep (and the head sitting on top of his shoulders isn’t the only one we hear from). His grittiness and vulgarity may well turn some readers off, and I can’t blame them. But, me? I looked forward to his chapters, even if I wanted to smack him upside the head more often than not.

Richard’s death brings out the worst in all of the characters, who are deeply flawed to begin with. Each member of the family, with the exception of six-year-old Amy, have their vices; Minna, Richard’s daughter is addicted to pills and sex. Caroline, Richard’s ex-wife, is an alcoholic. And Trenton… well, as I said above, it would be quicker to list what isn’t messed up with this kid. These characters are not always easy to root for, and, in the absence of a tangible antagonist, they are always either fighting amongst themselves, or fighting within themselves.

The ghosts, Alice and Sandra, serve as omniscient narrators, though both are biased, opinionated, and unreliable. They’re not afraid to call each other out, either. In fact, the first line we hear from Sandra is this (referring to the previous chapters from Alice’s point of view):

“I’m not afraid to say that what you’ve heard so far is a big honking load of bullshit.”

Do I even need to say that both ghosts are tremendously fun to read?

Told in both first and third person, past and present tense, by an ensemble of viewpoint characters both living and dead, Rooms is an ambitious novel. Like the tree on the brilliantly designed cover, a story such as this risks branching off in dozens of different directions, leaving the reader lost and frustrated. However, Oliver found a solution to this pitfall. Save for a handful of flashbacks, the entire story takes place on the late Walker’s estate. The constant setting acts as a counterweight to the frequent shifts in point of view and narrative style, and helps to keep the reader grounded and the story moving forward.

The book does have a few minor problems. Sometimes the prose is overdone, even bordering on purple. Take, for example:

“His motions are erratic, like a scarecrow that has just come to life and has to compensate for a spine full of stuffing.”

or

“Normally, Minna felt calmer after sex, empty, like the world after a blizzard — almost as if she didn’t exist at all.”

Excessive? Yeah, maybe a little bit. But, to be honest, I feel like it works, because these self-centered characters would use larger-than-life similes and metaphors to describe their lives. That’s not to say Oliver doesn’t overuse them – trimming a few here and there wouldn’t have hurt. But they’re appropriate within the context of the story and characters, so I never considered them to be a huge issue, even though they were distracting at times.

The book did leave me with a few unanswered questions (or, at least, questions I wish were answered in more detail). Overall, though, I found the whole journey from start to finish to be a satisfying and fulfilling one.

 

Recommended if:

  • You like flawed characters, family dramas, and dark humor.

 

Not recommended if:

  • You’re looking for edge-of-your-seat horror.
  • You have a low tolerance for vulgarity.

 

starstarstarstarstar

5/5

 

(On a side note, if you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend giving this one a listen. Each character is read by a different narrator, and all of them are exceptional. Perfect casting, perfect performances. I was already familiar with Noah Galvin after listening to his terrific reading of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, but the others were all new to me.)

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