Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.
Why do authors use pseudonyms? It's a question worth mulling over. Sometimes one can chalk it up to a publisher's preferences, such as the desire to make an usual name more marketable or to allow an author to experiment outside of his chosen style without risking the loss of a hard-won audience. Consider how Salvatore Lombino changed his name to Evan Hunter and later swapped that one out for Ed McBain. But other times it's out of an embarrassment over a chosen genre, a feeling of shame for writing in a “low” style. In an interview with Poisoned Pen Press' Barbara Peters, Andrew Klavan admitted that he used the pseudonym Keith Peterson when penning his early hardboiled mysteries because he thought them inferior to literary writing. I can't help but wonder if that's why Dr. Denis MacEoin, a British specialist in Muslim studies, wrote his supernatural horror novel Naomi's Room under the pseudonym Jonathan Aycliffe. After all, if there's a genre that can't get any love, it's horror.
Dr. Charles Hillenbrand had everything he wanted, a promising academic career, a passionate marriage and a beautiful four-year-old daughter named Naomi. Then on that one Christmas Eve, it all vanished. He and Naomi were walking through Dickins & Jones, a London department store, and Charles looked away for just an instant to examine a toy train. When he turned back, Naomi was gone. Police later found her body in an alley. She'd been ... Well, let's be delicate and say she didn't die quickly. Now Charles can't sleep. His career has stalled. He and his wife pass through their house like ships in the night. And it isn't only because of their mutual loss. In the empty hours, he hears a child screaming, voices whispered in his ear and the sound of something being dragged through the attic. Naomi, it seems, is loathe to leave her living haunts -- as are her unseen friends.
Naomi's Room is far scarier than it has any right to be. After all, if there's a hoary horror archetype, it's the haunted house, and Aycliffe ticks off the conventions one by one. Unidentified persons appear in photographs. Childhood toys mysteriously turn up around the residence. Temperatures plunge when spirits grow wrathful. But against the odds, the story truly does frighten. Part of the reason why is that Aycliffe understands Hitchcock's famous bomb theory, namely that one builds tension by revealing rather than concealing information. Within the first few chapters, we know not only that Naomi has died, but that Charles' wife has followed after her, and that he himself lives a barren existence in a home crawling with ghosts. Every bump sends gooseflesh crawling up your spine as you wonder what part in the whole it plays -- at least until the ending. In the final chapters, Aycliffe abruptly swings into slasher territory, a shift that shatters suspense, undermines key sections of narration and toys with readers' sympathies. A disappointing development, one that caters to genre's worst impulses and does nothing to aid its reputation in the world at large.
(Picture: CC 2010 by gilderic)