When I read the description for Edgar Cantero's The Supernatural Enhancements, I was excited to add it to my queue as a potential post for Halloween. On the surface it is a haunted house story, but there is so much more to it than that, just as the book jacket suggests. And for me, a haunted house story probably would have been enough, so anything more than that was almost guaranteed to make me happy.
The Situation: It's 1995, and twenty-something year-old A. has just been informed that he has inherited Axton House in Point Bless, Virginia. Apparently he has, or had, a second cousin twice removed who recently passed away. And since A. is the closest living relative to the now deceased Ambrose Wells, he inherits the massive house and everything inside. So along with his companion Niamh, an Irish mute teenager who can't weigh more than 90 pounds, A. leaves Europe for Virginia to check out his inheritance. Not only is his new home more house than he and Niamh could ever manage on their own, but apparently it is haunted. Everyone in the area seems to acknowledge that this is true, both directly and indirectly. And once A. has an encounter of his own, he and Niamh begin rigging the house with video cameras and audio equipment to see what they can find.
The Problem: The ghost or spirit that inhabits the house is the least of either A. or Niamh's worries. The house is full of so many secrets, the pair almost don't know where to begin. It also appears that Ambrose was a part of some sort of secret society that gathered together once a year during the winter solstice, which is less than two months away. Soon there is a break-in, and then the pair receive a visit from a friend of Ambrose's, who clearly believes that the late Mr. Wells intended to leave something behind for him and is eager to find it. A. and Niamh begin finding clues left by Ambrose, clues which they believe could lead them to the very thing Ambrose's friend is after. But the one person who could assist them in solving the mystery, Ambrose's butler, took off shortly after his master's death. Also, A. begins having awful nightmares, making him believe he is losing his mind. Ambrose died by jumping out of his bedroom window, just like his father before him. And if A. keeps having the troubling visions and nightmares, he may end up following in his distant cousin's literal footsteps.
Genre, Themes, History: I have chosen to categorize this as a horror novel, although really it could be mystery, thriller, or suspense, or any combination of the above. Axton House is a haunted house, as there is a spirit living there that A. actually encounters. But there are also clues left behind by Ambrose that lead to an even bigger mystery, and possibly an answer to what he and 19 of his friends were involved in that caused them to meet every December during the winter solstice. Plus, it doesn't seem that the ghost or spirit is responsible for the awful nightmares and visions that A. has been having. Many of the nightmares are somewhat tame and not at all alarming, but others are terrifying and cause A. to feel real pain unlike any dream he has had before. The Supernatural Enhancements is a horror story that doesn't only stick with the haunted house idea. There is also a treasure hunt, a secret society, hidden rooms, crystal balls, cryptograms, murder, and a hedge maze on the Axton House property, just in case the creepy serial killer feeling wasn't quite complete. And in the grand tradition of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the entire book is comprised of letters, video footage, audio recordings, and journal entries, which can always make a story like this seem a little more real.
My Verdict: I always maintain that it is hard to find a good modern day horror movie, and horror novels aren't much different. But for me, Cantero manages to pull it off. The Supernatural Enhancements is just the type of haunted house story I love. Basically, it isn't actually about the house being haunted, although that is part of it. And there isn't an Indian burial ground in the basement, and the characters haven't been dead the entire time either. There is a hedge maze, which may seem a bit cliche, but trust me when I say that its presence is worth it. The book is more than just weird stuff jumping out at the characters from the shadows of a massive mansion. There is mystery and adventure, in addition to the prospect of being scared witless. And the secret society that Ambrose appears to have been a part of is just icing on the cake. In fact, I feel like much more time could have been spent just explaining how that works and all of the different aspects of it, as well as its history. Just when the reader is getting real answers as to how everything works, the book ends. I'm not saying I feel cheated or was left unsatisfied, but this was one rare instance in which I believe a book would have been better if it were a little longer.
Favorite Moment: While having dinner with friends of Ambrose's, A. is asked by their hosts to say the prayer before the meal. A, being more or less Atheist, passes the task onto Niamh, who can't speak. Yet somehow, the food is blessed and everyone moves on.
Favorite Character: If I had inherited a haunted house with a dangerous history and a questionable future, I would want someone like Niamh with me. More than once A. refers to her as his protector, although what qualifies her for such a title isn't really made clear. But she does the job well, despite weighing less than 100 pounds and lacking the ability to speak. She's smart, clever, stronger than she looks, and doesn't say much. Not bad as far as traveling companions go.
Recommended Reading: I could go a couple of directions with this. I already mentioned Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But there is also Marisha Pessl's Night Film, another modern horror/mystery novel. Also, if you're into books that contain letters and newspaper clippings and handwritten notes, then you may enjoy S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.