by Christopher Ransom
320 pages, St. Martin's Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Don’t you just love it when you stumble across a real gem when you’re least expecting it? I bought The Birthing House on a whim at an airport. From the blurb on the cover, it looked like an immediately accessible, enjoyable but ultimately disposable horror novel that would be a quick, undemanding read. How wrong I was! Christopher Ransom’s debut novel is an intelligent, haunting read that is as wise and introspective as anything I’ve read by a more seasoned author.
The plot is fairly straightforward – having experienced some marital difficulties, Conrad Harrison and his wife Jo relocate from California to an old birthing house in a quiet Wisconsin town. Once there they discover their dream home is harbouring a number of dark secrets. Sounds like your average haunted house novel, right? Thankfully, it is anything but. The Birthing House is a far more complicated, multi-layered experience than the blurb on the cover would have you believe. Whilst the novel has its fair share of creepy moments, its real power lies in the psychological impact that it carries.
Ransom provides us with an unflinchingly honest portrayal of male sexuality through the character of Conrad. Much of the novel focuses on his own ailing relationship with Jo and the simmering resentment they feel for one another. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Conrad’s first serious relationship, his sexual awakening and the girl that got away. To reveal any more of the plot would be to spoil the numerous surprises that lie hidden within its pages. In places it is dreamlike and hallucinatory, at other times rational and grounded in the real world. Seamlessly switching between the two, Ransom’s enthrals and disorientates his readers in equal measures. Reading the book in one sitting is akin to experiencing some kind of fever-induced nightmare and I very much doubt anyone could make it to the end without feeling thoroughly creeped-out.
Part of me was disappointed that The Birthing House was not a run-of-the-mill trashy horror novel. It was a challenging read, both disturbing and emotionally exhausting. That isn’t to say the book is not rewarding. Patient and attentive readers will find some chilling insights into the traumatic aspects of birth, sex and death. Sex and childbirth can be beautiful experiences but they can also be brutal, damaging ones. Ransom further compounds this bleak philosophy by adding that a traumatic passing from this world can leave similar emotional scars in buildings and that these bad memories feed on the negative emotions of those around them. As I said, pretty heavy stuff.
Ransom writes well. Very well. So well, in fact, that it is hard to comprehend this is his first novel. His characters are believable and the dialogue is snappy, with a witty ear for the regional dialect of small town America. Though not filled with incident, the narrative ambles along at a leisurely pace and it is this unassuming rhythm of the book that makes the scar bits so utterly terrifying. Conrad Harrison is a wonderful central character: unsure of what he wants from life, it would be easy to dismiss him as embittered and cynical. As we learn more about him we discover that he is emotionally needy and irreparably damaged by the experiences of his past. Whilst not entirely likeable, sensitive readers will be able to identify with him and share in his own private horrors.
If The Birthing House is anything to go by, Christopher Ransom will be a name to watch in the future. Uncomfortable and uncompromising, it is a demanding book that may be too heavy-going for those used to the splatter-fiction of James Herbert or Shaun Hutson. Readers who approach Ransom’s debut with an open mind will discover a book whose psychological horrors have the ability to haunt them long after the gruesome conclusion.