but to return to the subject of the moment which is christopher ransom's the birthing house. it's mr. ransom's first novel which makes it respectable in and of itself. while i have written novel-length files -- go, nanowrimo! -- i can't say any of them are wildly coherent or meaningful to anyone other than myself.
and the birthing house isn't bad. but it's not one of those first novels that's going to make you want to go out and buttonhole people on the street and insist that they read it. the set-up is the classic horror trope: bright young couple moves into house with (possibly) twisted past. weird shit begins to happen. weird shit continues to happen and gets worse. bright young couple descend into weird shit and emerge/don't emerge/emerge in a different dimension on the other side. tah-dah.
in this case, the bright young couple isn't all that bright or young -- in fact, the husband of the pair makes the house purchase on his own with money received from the estate of a recently deceased estranged father. the wife isn't consulted and, when told, isn't entirely wild about the idea of moving from l.a. to the wilds of the midwest. but the move is accomplished; the first conversations about neighbors that feature dialogue like, "so how do you like your house? y'know, the last people who lived there--- well, i really shouldn't say--" happen; the family pets start to behave in freaky ways and so on.
the dark secret in the house's past is that it was a birthing house -- a phrase that ransom throws around unexplained for most of the book. i guess, largely from what i gathered through the novel itself, that it was some kind of home for unwed mothers run by a single male doctor and -- maybe? -- staffed by a couple of permanent female nurses. i think that's what he was getting at anyway. a little more explanation and detailed historical background would not have gone amiss.
there are a lot of first novel mistakes made here; one of the worst is that, for no good reason, about 2/3rds of the way through the book, one chapter is written in first person singular while the rest of the book is written either in straightforward third person or from an omniscient point of view. the one chapter is a clanger; a wrench straight onto the foot of the unsuspecting, trusting reader. i assume its effect was meant to be to make the narrator more untrustworthy than he already was and it sort of works, but it's mostly just annoying and feels like an author who suddenly lost confidence in himself and resorted to a hack trick to get out of what he thought was a bad corner. kage baker -- an author i absolutely adore -- has a similar slip in her first novel, garden of iden; there's this one weird section towards the end of the book that, in order to make the action work, changes point of view abruptly in the middle of the action. it makes the last bit of the book run smoothly, yeah, but it's also really annoying.
to be fair, there are also some genuinely creepy moments: the chapters that are flashback or waking dreams explaining the haunting of the house by an abused daughter of one of the unwed mothers are really unsettling and twisted. there's the sense of the narrator tracking the ghosts -- there may be only one, there may be many, he isn't really sure although by the end it's made mindbogglingly clear -- through the house to try and figure out what's going wrong. there's a moment about halfway through the book where our narrator, the husband, isn't sure if he's looking at and talking to his semi-estranged wife or the ghost of one of the house's old inhabitants which is quite frightening, not least because the woman in question opens the conversation with, "the baby is dead." oooh-kay. we'll just be leaving you alone to have that moment, then.
there are probably whole shelves of books out there written about the use of pregnancy and birth metaphors -- and real pregnancies and births -- in horror fiction and i'm not going to try to make some sort of wild intellectual argument here without really knowing what i'm talking about. i'll just borrow a phrase one of my college friends used as her sig file for a long time: "get pregnant? i saw alien. i ain't doin' that."
the book is creepy; the birthing house concept veers from the mildly unsettling to the deeply disgusting; and, in the end, there's a kind of tommyknockers-style conclusion. it works -- but a second novel will probably be better.