Book Review: Apart in the Dark by Ania Ahlborn
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Gallery Books (January 16, 2018)
Length: 384 pages
Last year, I had the pleasure of reading horror writer extraordinaire Ania Ahlborn for the very first time. I was glad I picked up The Devil Crept In, a novel about a boy who goes missing in the woods amidst a town with a terrible secret. It was legitimately one of only a handful of books to ever keep me up at night, and I vowed that I would read more Ahlborn the first chance I got.
That chance came with Apart in the Dark, an omnibus featuring a pair of the author’s horror novellas which were previously only available in digital format. Now, I’m not typically big on novellas, but I gladly made an exception in this case.
The Pretty Ones
The first story in this collection, The Pretty Ones, takes place in New York City during the sweltering summer of 1977—the year in which the Son of Sam conducted his infamous killing spree. Our protagonist is Nell Sullivan, an early twenty-something young woman employed at a call center for a major corporation. Quiet, awkward, and extremely self-conscious, Nell doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of the girls at work, who all seem to have perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect lives. Silently, she may seethe at their bullying and cruel jabs, imagining torturing and killing them in the worst of ways, but the truth is, Nell desperately wants to be popular. She also can’t afford to lose her job, so when her supervisor tells her to try to open up and be more social, Nell takes the advice to heart.
However, her brother Barrett, who doesn’t speak and is completely dependent on Nell to support his aspiring writing career, thinks she’s wasting her time trying to make new friends. He believes the two of them can only depend on each other, having shared a traumatic childhood growing up with an abusive mother.
More than this I don’t want to say, because wow, there were a ton of cool twists and surprises packed in this novella which only clocks in at about 140 pages. As someone who both fascinated and frustrated me, Nell was a compelling character to follow. She’s strange, timid, unwilling to stick up for herself, and admittedly, at times her thoughts and actions could also come across as unbelievably cringey. That said, her personality traits are the result of her upbringing, and the descriptions of horrible things she and her brother went through were just heartbreaking. When you consider her past, it becomes easier to understand the disturbing thoughts that go through Nell’s head, and why she is the way she is.
Truth be told though, I don’t know if I would classify this story as true Horror, as it is not frightening or creepy in the traditional sense. And while there is an element of suspense, Ahlborn doesn’t exactly utilize it in an overly dramatic or exaggerated way. Instead, the story’s climax just kind of sneaks up on you, so that when the final revelation hits, you won’t even really see it coming. That’s the only explanation I could come up with for not figuring out the ending until late in the story, as I’m usually much quicker when it comes to these things.
I Call Upon Thee
Before I continue, first let me preface this next part of my review with a little confession: I hate dolls. Ever since I was a little girl walking in on my parents watching Child’s Play, I have been afraid of them. To this day, I cannot look upon the frozen smile and glassy eyes of a doll without getting the heebie-jeebies. So as you can imagine, this next story creeped me the hell out.
I Call Upon Thee follows Maggie Olsen, a college student who was raised in Savannah, Georgia in a big gorgeous house with her two older sisters. But something happened in that house when our protagonist was a child—something dark and unnatural—that made her decide to leave the moment she graduated high school and never look back. When she was nine years old, Maggie’s middle sister Brynn took her to the nearby cemetery to see where the town’s dead children were buried, and sitting on one of the ancient forgotten graves was a box containing a porcelain doll. Feeling sad for the little girl in that grave, Maggie made a promise to be friends, visiting the cemetery daily until the summer of 2005 when Maggie brought the doll home in order to protect it from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.
But that wasn’t the only thing she brought home. On the day she turned twelve, Maggie used her birthday money to buy a Ouija board, which she tried playing with her best friend during a sleepover party. Life for the Olsens was never the same after that. Tragedies struck one after another, until Maggie left for college and thought the past was finally behind her, but now a frantic phone call in the middle of the night has forced her back to Savannah to confront her old home and the darkness still living inside.
If the previous novella wasn’t scary enough for me, then this one definitely made up for it in spades. Reading it sent chills up my spine. Containing all the ingredients of a classic horror tale, I Call Upon Thee plays upon our childhood fears of the dark and things that lurk under our beds or in our closets. Of the strange sounds waking you up in the dead of night. Of the quick blurry shadows that you catch just out of the corner of your eye.
Also, since this was a longer novella, there were more opportunities for character and story development. I liked how the narrative slowly unraveled, gradually revealing all the secrets and terrible things that happened in Maggie’s past. And just when I thought things couldn’t get better, I reached the end and saw the Author’s Note. Here’s a tip: if you ever read this, make sure not to skip Ahlborn’s closing comments. Reading them only made the unease I felt over this story grow, and made me appreciate it even more.
In closing, I’d just like to say how much I enjoyed Apart in the Dark. While the two novellas within may share some themes, on the whole they are quite different, each offering a distinct horror experience. Both, however, are solidly written and utterly engrossing to read. If you’re curious about the work of Ania Ahlborn, this would be an excellent place to start.