"Mormama" Book Review

Written by Jeff Tolbert

Published by Tor Books

Written by Kit Reed
2017, 286 pages, Fiction
Released on May 30th, 2017


Ghosts are obsessed with houses. Or people who write about ghosts are. Or both. I'm not sure exactly where or when the notion of place-bound spirits originated, but it's definitely a major trope in supernatural fiction, and most often the place to which they are bound is a big, rambling house.

In Mormama that house is the Ellis mansion in Jacksonville, an interesting spin on the Gothic tactic of locating sprawling castles on windswept cliffs or other isolated, dramatic settings. The house is occupied by Rose, Iris, and Ivy; three ancient sisters who fanatically protect the sanctity of their place from the encroachments of the outside world. And encroach it does: their nearest neighbors are a dilapidated highrise and a truck yard.

When amnesiac Dell drifts into town, armed only with a flash drive and a scrap of paper with the Ellis mansion's address, we are plunged into a narrative that is primarily exposition in the form of stream-of-consciousness flashbacks. The perspective switches between the seven primary characters, including the eponymous Mormama herself, and as is now to be expected in supernatural stories, the chronology is anything but linear. We learn about the Ellis family's matriarch, Manette, who at the turn of the century insisted that her husband-to-be build her the extravagant mansion and fill it with priceless baubles and expendable children. Manette is horrendously materialistic, and her overwhelming obsession with things is the primary force impelling the action of the novel. She views her many children as playthings, and if they disappoint her in any way they are discarded. Unfortunately for the Ellis children, the house was built where it should not have been, and the spirits of several Ellis family members become trapped there. Manette herself seems possessed by a literal dark spirit, and between her wickedness and the house's bad vibes, the Ellis family was doomed from the start.

Manette's mother, derisively called "Mormama" by Manette's husband ("One more mama than we need"), moves into the house when she becomes convinced that her grandchildren are in danger. In the novel's present, Mormama's spirit haunts the house and narrates a number of chapters. She is bound to the place and cannot leave while the house stands. She and the other central characters—which also include Lane and her son Theo, the last descendants of the Ellis line—take turns narrating the past and present, and by the end we know the whole sordid history of the family.

Mormama is exceptionally slow. The narrative switches between present- and past-tense, which makes sense, but the central concern with establishing Manette as a ravenously greedy monster means that we retread the same ground again and again. The chapters from Theo's perspective are written in an attempt to mimic youth patterns of speech (he's fourteen), and it's not really very convincing. We get stuff like,

So my mom is tied up most days and every night, all pointing and tapping on her cheap little—one step up from a PlayStation, although she gets pissed off when I call it that. She says it was expensive, and she passworded it so the screen dares me to guess what new string she entered before she left the house, and you know what? I’ve tried everything and I still can’t crack it, I hate my life.

I’m quite a bit older than fourteen, so perhaps I’m out of touch, but I’m pretty sure nobody has ever spoken about computers like this. One gets the sense that the author has done a lot of Wikipedia-ish research on personal computers, and while she has the vocabulary, she doesn’t quite have the syntax. For one thing, a “PlayStation,” from Theo’s fourteen-year-old perspective (in 2017), could only mean a PS4, which is more powerful than a lot of laptops (depending on your metrics, of course). Also, I’m pretty sure that putting a new password on one’s PC every time one leaves home is something only an IT professional or obsessive-compulsive would do. (Not that it isn’t a good idea, mind.)

Since we’re griping about language, Reed also uses the word “temporizing” a disconcerting number of times, and refers to boxes as “cartons” again and again throughout the entire novel. This is surely a Southern, or perhaps an exclusively Jacksonville, thing, but it grates on my grammarian nerves. (As a folklorist, I should be appreciative of regional dialects. But COME ON, the thing that a giant Ikea desk comes in is not a “carton.” Milk comes in cartons. So do eggs. Desks do not come in cartons.)

Okay, okay. I’m not really counting those as criticisms. I’m just being pissy.

Appropriately enough, Mormama is as much about place as people. The Gothic tradition is always obsessed with place, and some of the best supernatural stories ever written are part of this tradition. (Think Carmilla, The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting, The Shining, or The Woman in Black.) Mormama stands as part of the uniquely American Southern Gothic subgenre, and while it's no Haunting, it's still an intriguing read. The characters are not exactly likable, and there’s no sense of urgency, but it’s an interesting meditation on place and the price of materialism.


Overall: 3.5 Star Rating Cover
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Jeff Tolbert
Staff Reviewer
Jeff studies folklore for a living (no, really) and digs the supernatural. He loves a good haunting, and really strongly recommends that everyone stop what they're doing and go play Fatal Frame right now.
Other articles by this writer



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