If you ask the wrong person, you’ll no doubt be told that the horror genre is going through something of a revolution right now. That it is moving away from its traditional reputation as the trashy and pulpy outcast of the literary world. A recent article in the Guardian prompted some people on Twitter to celebrate the fact that horror was finally becoming political and literary. Well, that’s one way to admit that you don’t know anything about horror fiction. It also has nothing to do with the actual article. The basic argument of that seems to be, look at these minority voices who are now writing horror novels. Just because someone who isn’t white is writing a certain genre doesn’t mean it is only just becoming political. It’s just becoming more diverse and rightly so.
As much as people who have watched Jordan Peele’s Get Out would like to believe it, horror writing and politics have been bedfellows for a long time. Gothic tropes have always been used to help writers convey their political beliefs. There’s a reason why so many gothic romances were written around the time of the French Revolution. Images of real horror are a fantastic way to portray the social and political problems facing real people. So, James Han Mattson isn’t exactly doing anything new by combining horror and social commentary. What is quite revolutionary is how little he seems to care about the horror elements of his novel. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that I was reading the work of a writer who had been forced to embrace a genre that he didn’t care for in order to write the book he actually wanted.
Reprieve details the events inside a full-contact horror escape room in the late 90s. A group of 4 people enter the experience in order to win a huge cash prize. If they can all make it through the 5 different cells, the group will walk away with the cash. However, if the various frights and booby traps get too much, they can shout the word “reprieve” to end the experience. Obviously, something awful happens and somebody ends up dead. The narrative jumps forwards and backwards in time, so we slowly learn what happened in the escape room and why.
In my opinion, the main issue with this novel is the structure. There is so much context to get through, that the tension just instantly fades. There isn’t enough horror to keep the reader on the edge of their seats. There are only a handful of chapters set inside the escape room and those are irritatingly short. Then, after each brief encounter, we’re back to a large section that just sets up the action. The horror is an afterthought, which means this book just isn’t scary. For one thing, we already know how the story ends, which means there’s no shock. Then the descriptions of the escape rooms are just kind of dull. They’re taken from the point of view of a contestant who just keeps reminding us that nothing is real. What kind of horror novel keeps telling the reader that all of the scary elements are false?
I understand that Mattson is trying to do something bigger than scare people. The main point of his novel is a discussion of race and a commentary on American society. It’s all very worthwhile and important. However, why choose this genre to do so if you aren’t going to actually scare people? It’s as if he had decided that horror books aren’t literary enough and that he was going to improve then. The end result is just underwhelming. If you can’t tell a story without bogging us down with context, then you aren’t telling your story in the right way. Maybe this would have worked with a different format but, as it is, this is another forgettable Get Out wannabe.
In terms of social commentary, I think there is a lot to sink your teeth into but it doesn’t feel like something new. This is all just stuff we’ve heard before without any new arguments. It deals with race, sexuality and financial disparity. All very topical and big topics. Mattson does offer his own unique perspective but it all feels a bit flimsy. The book ends with too many loose ends and as the narrative goes on the plot holes become more obvious. Again, I get the feeling that if this hadn’t been a horror novel, it might have been easier to tell this story.
Would it have been a better story? I can’t really say. Reprieve was just such a thinly written novel. There is barely any character development and each character is just a basic stereotype. The writing is heavy-handed and the whole book just lacks finesse. It’s far too dense and the pacing is just too slow. There’s a lot of unnecessary detail and far too much context. It needed a stronger editor and a better grasp of the story it wanted to tell. Maybe I would have looked on it more favourably if it hadn’t been billed as one of the most terrifying novels in recent years. It definitely isn’t a horror novel but I applaud the attempt at social commentary.