Publisher: Del Rey
Publish Date: 20 July 2021
Page Count: 544 pages
I am a BIG horror film fan. Slashers, paranormal horror, body horror, monster horror – I love ’em all. And yet, I haven’t come across a horror book that I enjoy anywhere near as much as I do scary movies.
I haven’t read any Stephen King since finding Carrie surprisingly anticlimactic, and I found Lovecraft’s fear of foreign architecture too over-the-top to make it through At the Mountains of Madness. Recently, I’ve come across many horror novels that tend to exploit mental illness to rationalise their plot, which is a pet peeve of mine. In doing this, they bypass the interesting zone where fantasy and horror overlap in the oft-debated speculative fiction Venn diagram.
So, when I heard The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wending described as a literary haunted house novel, I was immediately interested. I don’t actually know what it means to be a writer of ‘literary fiction’ other than ‘author write good’, but to me, this description promised a book that would be scary while also having depth and meaning. I was convinced this would be the case when Wending mentioned in a recent Q&A that he worked on the book on and off for around twenty years. I was intrigued to discover what it was about this story that kept him persevering.
Well, I was lucky enough to get an advanced review copy from Del Rey, and after tearing through it in a couple of days, I have to say The Book of Accidents is everything I’d hoped it would be.
“The house made its creaks and crackles, its arthritic complaints, its small groans of time and fatigue and maybe the pain of some deeper memory.”
On the tin, it sounds like a familiar haunted house affair: a young family inherits a creepy old house, and strange things start to happen when they move in. But there is much more to the story than this. Throughout the book, there is an underlying anxiety about the state of the modern world–gun violence in particular–seen through the eyes of Oliver, Nate and Maddie’s empath son. This social commentary seems to be thematically consistent with Wendig’s bestseller, Wanderers.
“Why did it feel like something was broken? Like a gear had slipped somewhere deep in the machinery, and they wouldn’t realise it until it was far, far, too late? Was the world broken? Or was he?”
In the initial chapters, Nate and Maddie decide to move into the rural home of Nate’s recently deceased father to protect their hypersensitive son. After returning to his unhappy childhood home, Nate is haunted by memories of his abusive father, and Maddie suddenly becomes afraid to create new artwork. As all three family members witness strange occurrences, a mysterious boy befriends Oliver with promises of magic. Nate, Maddie and Oliver soon realised that a dark force threatens their family, and perhaps everyone they know.
The Book of Accidents is creepy as hell, containing disturbingly visceral scenes that made me squirm even as I couldn’t wait to keep reading. A lot is going on between the strange flashback scenes of brutal murders and trying to figure out the connection to whatever strangeness plagues Nate, Maddie and Oliver. There are recognisable horror scares throughout the book, and while reading them didn’t make me jump as they would in a film (though that would look hilarious), Wendig’s sharp, visual prose creates some truly tense and disturbing scenes.
Something about the short chapter format, mysterious dark forces and small-town family drama reminded me a little of Stranger Things. More so, there are many similarities with Stephen King’s storytelling (one chapter is even titled We All Float Down Here). I have to say I vastly prefer Wendig’s more dynamic writing style that he uses to create vivid contrast in the atmosphere of one scene and the next, all with an undertone of witty humour that comes up at just the right times.
He is also one of those authors who nails writing different character perspectives with distinct voices. I particularly loved the foul-mouthed Maddie and her whacky sense of humour.
“Worse comes to worst, we call an old priest and a young priest and get this exorcism party started.”
I’ve mentioned that I don’t enjoy the tendency of horror writers to use mental illness as a plot device. While The Book of Accidents contains challenging themes, they are the focus of Wendig’s writing rather than an accessory to it. The book explores the legacy of abuse and what this means for the individual and the family. Nate’s struggle with his past and Oliver’s discomfort with world events are reflected by imagery throughout the book: there’s the overarching battle of good vs evil, sure, but also more nuanced symbology like the relationship between creation and entropy, life and death, and God and Satan–or perhaps devil and demon–as father and son.
The Book of Accidents is a satisfying mashup of horror, fantasy and sci-fi that will take you to places you never expected. It has certainly been worth the effort and love that Wendig has put into writing it. It’s definitely a story I’d like to revisit in the future.
Big thanks to Del Rey UK and Blackcrow PR for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!
Trigger warnings: Child and domestic abuse, body horror, mentioned suicide, addiction, mentioned self-harm, death of family
Support independent bookstores and my blog by buying from bookshop.org