It's been a good long while since I have been able to cover a book that falls into the category of horror fiction, and Ania Ahlborn's Within These Walls seemed like the perfect candidate. The synopsis promised a haunted house, ghosts, and a mysterious cult leader. And with everything that went on in the book, I wouldn't have been surprised if there was also an Indian burial ground and creepy possessed children.
The Situation: Lucas Graham hasn't published a successful book in years. So when Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who was accused of killing a woman and her baby, while also convincing nine others to kill themselves, reaches out to him and offers him the story subject he has been waiting for, he naturally jumps at the opportunity. After having been arrested in 1983, Halcomb has kept completely silent about what happened in the house in Pier Pointe, Washington. He is willing to give Lucas, and only Lucas, an interview, but in order to receive something every media outlet and true crime writer has wanted, Lucas must stay in the very house where Halcomb committed his crimes. His wife, Caroline, is against uprooting the family from New York and moving halfway across the country, even if it is for the writing opportunity of a life time. Of course, she has no idea he already said yes.
The Problem: Before Lucas even introduces the idea of living in a former murder house in order to get the story of what really happened there, his relationship with his wife was already strained. And the one with his preteen daughter, Virginia, isn't much better. While Lucas and Virginia pack up to head to Washington, Caroline gets ready for a trip to Italy, with the man that Lucas knows she is cheating on him with. And while he is glad to have his daughter along with him and possibly a chance to fix whatever is broken between them, Lucas worries about his daughter finding out the real reason they are going to Seattle, and what really happened in the house they are now staying in. As time moves on, and Lucas' dream opportunity slowly turns into a nightmare, he still manages to hold on to the quickly fading hope that he'll get the story that will save his career. Meanwhile, Virginia is able to find out all about the house and Jeffrey Halcomb on her own, leading to her own side project. But with strange things beginning to happen in and around the house, it is clear that whatever motives they each may have for this trip are secondary to someone else's.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror novel set partly in modern day, and partly in the early 1980s. For the most part, the story follows Lucas and Virginia as they coexist in the house in Pier Pointe. But the entire story of what happened back in 1983 is also revealed slowly throughout the book, leading up to the day of the gruesome murder/suicides. A big part of both stories is the charming and enigmatic cult leader Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who managed to gather a following out of lost, addicted, or abandoned runaways and convince them that he is little less than a god. At first glance the group looks like a band of traveling hippies who never stay in one place too long and refuse to get real jobs, while operating out of the belief that the individual is nothing and that personal sacrifices are made for the good of the group. Halcomb makes the young recruits feel special; assures them they are not alone; and offers them safety and love, something they are all too eager to except. But his darker more sinister objective soon surfaces, and the more committed members of the group remain undeterred and still believe in their leader. It is an eerie look at what one person can convince someone else to do by saying the right words and being attractive enough. And it is the kind of terrible parenting that Lucas and Caroline offer up to their daughter Virginia that cause otherwise grounded people to follow someone like Halcomb.
My Verdict: I am all about horror stories that are sufficiently terrifying without being crazy bloody. And this book fits that perfectly. Having people live in a haunted house where an awful murder and mysterious suicides took place is creepy enough. Simultaneously tell the story of a charming cult leader who seems to be able to get pretty much anyone to do what he wants, and you've got more than just a ghost story. Jeffrey Halcomb is the ultimate villain, pulling strings that people don't even realize are being pulled, including his most devoted followers. It's the kind of story that makes you wonder if Halcomb is really the charming and manipulative, or are the people he picks that broken and desperate? Maybe it is a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. Either way, it is an unnerving tale and one that makes you ask yourself how far you would be willing to go to please someone with an attractive personality, offering you everything you've always wanted.
Favorite Moment: I'm not sure I can pick a favorite moment. Everything in this book is incredibly dark and there isn't one part that stood out that I can say I really loved.
Favorite Character: Again, I don't think I can pick anyone. Everyone in this book is either crazy, annoyingly desperate, or just stupid...or some combination of all three. Halcomb convinces people to do ridiculous things so easily. And just when it starts to look like someone has a will of their own, it is either too late, or the easily fold under the slightest pressure.
Recommended Reading: Marisha Pessl's Night Film follows another writer as he is trying to uncover the true story behind a famous director of cult classic horror movies after the mysterious death of the director's daughter. There are no ghosts, but there is a (seemingly) haunted house and many "followers" of the famed director and his movies.