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  • Writer's picturecharlottelzang

The Death House

Today brings a guest post from Writer/Director Alex Knudsen who felt compelled enough by a recent read to write something about it. He is remarking on the book, The Death House by Sarah Pinborough, a 2016 horror novel. 

It is heart breaking, terrifying and so deeply, deeply moving.

I had been on such an incredibly long run of dark and mysterious detective and horror novels lately that when I opened the cover to my new book (okay, my kindle cover), “The Death House”, I expected more of the same gruesome and intense genre elements. I was sadly mistaken.

I began my long journey of somewhere between 50-70 (mostly) detective novels (I should really go back and count) about a year and a half ago starting my research for the final entry in my screenplay trilogy, “The Loss”, inventively named: ‘Chapter 3: A Detective Story’.

I like to keep things simple, okay.

I found the need to immerse myself in the world and mind of a detective, devouring as many books as possible on my daily subway commute to work; talking with real life detectives, doctors and pathologists to cover my bases.

I finished ‘Chapter 3’ about six months ago, but found it difficult to jump; or even side-step, away from my new favorite authors (Mo Hayder, Kate Atkinson, Tana French) and characters (Jack Caffery, Flea Marley, Jackson Brodie, Frank Mackey). But, alas, the time had come to embark on new adventures and meet new characters to inspire me.

So, I sought out some Amazon recommended books based on my previous reads. For no real rhyme or reason, I had become quite enamored with female European authors. It started with the brilliant Mo Hayder, and her Jack Caffery series, and dominoed from there. So, when I met British thriller, mystery, fantasy and YA author Sarah Pinborough on the Amazon recommended page, I thought, ‘ah yes, here is a good side-step’.

I know, I know, it sounds like I’m diving right into the same exact thing I’ve been reading for 18 months. But, here’s the thing – I have no desire to take a giant leap into Westerns, Romance or Historical novels. Not my thing. So, I reach close, not far.

This brings us to the first Sarah Pinborough novel I chose, the twisty, dark and ultra-fucked up “Behind Her Eyes”. This was right in my wheelhouse. I was on the edge of my seat, shocked and honestly quite disgusted (but, not in a gory way). It was awesome!

I had found my new author girlfriend.

On to the next book!

This, clearly, brings us full circle to the beginning of my story, “The Death House”. The title says it all, doesn’t it?

“This October…you want to know, you need to know what’s inside the house. You may get in…but, you’ll never get out of…THE DEATH HOUSE!”

Yeah…not so much.

It’s not that the title doesn’t grammatically make sense for what you’re about to read, it technically does. However, just not REMOTELY in the way I foolishly had assumed.

What I had realized; some sixty/seventy pages in (I’m assuming this is the Kindle equation for 23%), is that what I was reading, was incredibly sad.

The last ‘sad’ novel I had read was maybe “A Separate Peace”, back in high school. That was sad, wasn’t it? That’s my recollection from long, long ago at any rate.

Without giving away anything but the bare groundwork of this story, it takes place in either the future or simply a ‘different’ time. Things are just a tad off, a tad different, but nothing showy. The location is a house (see how the title makes half sense now) on a remote island where ‘Defectives’ are sent to purportedly live (or die) out the remainder of their, now very shortened lives (there’s the other half of the title).

What are ‘Defectives’?

Remember when you were in grade school and you were tested for lice and scoliosis? If not, then you grew up in a different time than me, so just imagine that was normal and everyone did it. In this world, children; roughly aged from 10-16, have their blood drawn instead and if they are found to be ‘defective’, they are swiftly obtained (abducted?), tossed into a white van (I know!) and shuttled off to the ‘house’ to join the others.

The house is essentially a school, full with classes, lunches, tea time and play time, and we follow Toby; the elder 15-year old leader of Dorm 4, as he quickly adapts to his new ‘life’ and his new friends, enemies, cliques and the revolving door of new kids replacing the old.

“It makes your eyes bleed”. This is the haunting whisper of the inevitable demise passed between the Defectives.

A rumor? A ghost story? A fact?

What Pinborough does so masterfully, is keep the clinical and technical details vague, rendering the mysteries fully in-tact, as she focuses on the heart of the story, the relationships. What’s important here isn’t the ‘strain’ of the disease, the calendar year or any of the feared gory details. It’s the feelings. The fear, the anger, the angst and the love between Toby and all those surrounding him.

“The Death House” is incredibly truthful and honest about the human condition, the core of this heartfelt novel. And it deals directly with perhaps the greatest fear of all: death. The fear of no longer existing. Not being able to love or be loved ever again. And, I love it, for all of these reasons.

I know, sounds like a real joy ride doesn’t it. I guess; what it does for me, is unites me with my love of film; the art that drives me to write, to direct and to produce other works of art with all that I have in me.

I must admit, I love sad movies. Movies that make my heart drop down into my gut and weep like a young lover in a Jane Austin book. The first film I decided to show my now wife, Charlotte, was “Warrior”, one of the most gut-wrenching and deeply moving films in the last decade. The very moment the credits began to roll, she escaped to the bathroom, shut the door and cried for a good 20-30 minutes, before coming back out with the blunt question/dagger, “why would you do that to me?”

(This has been a rare, but recurring question thrown at me like a harpoon over the years)

My answer, and the reason why I showed her this film, was because it moved me more than any film in my recent memory and I wanted her to feel what I felt. Sounds sadistic maybe, I know, but hear me out. It’s not because it was painful, but because it made me feel alive, made me appreciate life, those I love and it inspired me.

“The Death House” is my literary “Warrior”. It is heart breaking, terrifying and so deeply, deeply moving. It is the saddest book I have ever read and maybe the most life affirming. It is simply, brilliant.

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