"The Neighbors" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Thomas & Mercer
Written by Ania Ahlborn
2012, 234 pages, Fiction
Released on November 27th, 2012
Many authors struggle with their sophomore novel. Once you publish a book readers and critics share a love for, whatever you put out next will inevitably have to live up to existing expectations. Unfair? Maybe, but it's definitely a part of the writing game. Ania Ahlborn's Seed took the horror scene by storm in 2011 and made my list of top-ten novels for the year. The second I heard her second novel was coming, I began to salivate. After finishing it, I can say Ahlborn survived the dreaded sophomore hump, albeit barely. In Seed, she took the chances first time authors with nothing to lose take and it paid off. In this new novel, however, she plays it safer, or tries to tap into a new audience, and the book somewhat suffers for it.
In The Neighbors, Andrew Morrison is the perfect son to a flawed, broken mother. After years of pain, sacrifice, and putting up with his mother's raging alcoholism and agoraphobia, Drew decides it's time to break the crippling relationship and rents a room in a dilapidated house with his friend Mickey. While he struggles with the difficulties that come from starting his new life away from home, Drew starts to dream about living in the house next door, a beautiful abode pulled from the pages of a design magazine and inhabited by a seemingly perfect couple. When the neighbors, Harlow and Red, begin to interact with Drew, his dreams become mixed with a growing crush on Harlow. Unbeknownst to Andrew, his neighbors and housemate have a working relationship, a very dark and twisted understanding that leads to disappeared young men and lots of bloodshed. With bad things brewing just below the surface, a change in the dynamic between Andrew and Harlow ends up altering the usual outcome, but instead of a happy ending, it only leads to more violence.
Ahlborn left behind the horror writing that made Seed a fan favorite and instead dished out a psychological thriller. The tension builds slowly and the author manages to make readers care about Drew, a child who was abandoned by his father and forced to grow up too quickly. Also, the way Harlow and Red are seen through the eyes of their potential victim felt like a tribute to other serial killers with deep-rooted psychological issues and a critique of all things Americana.
However, despite those good elements, there are some things in The Neighbors that make it a mixed bag. For starters, sometimes the narrative hints at Harlow possessing some paranormal/psychological hold over the men that surround her, but that avenue is left unexplored and unexplained. The result is a character that's part perfect wife from the 1950s (think Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives), which is truly out of place, and part female serial killer. Sadly, the horrific and delightful gore that could've come from such a killer is nowhere to be found and the men around her end up looking like scared children. Also, the clean, sexless, nonviolent writing makes this more of a thriller for young adults than a horror novel for adults.
Ultimately, Ahlborn's talent was enough to help her survive the curse of the second novel, but she did so with a very atmospheric story devoid of scares and a novel that promised more than what it delivers. The fact that The Neighbors brings to the table a female evildoer and carefully constructed backstories (some pretty heart-wrenching) for all the characters is enough for me to recommend it, but as a fan of horror, I can't wait for Ahlborn to go back to the toothy shadows and overwhelming creepiness that made her a household name in the genre.
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