Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books: Naomi's Room by Jonathan Aycliffe

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)

8 comments:

B. Nagel said...

Hitchcock's bomb theory, eh? I'll have to check that out.

Loren Eaton said...

It's a fascinating idea. Here's the bit from the link:

Hitchcock: There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Scattercat said...

They always go for the gore, don't they?

So my first thought was that the main character is the one who killed Naomi because of badly-researched crazypants. Am I close? Or have I been reading too many Critters submissions?

Loren Eaton said...

No, that isn't quite it, although his hands are hardly clean by the end. Naomi's murder is only tangentially related to the ultimate conflict, another odd point.

Donna Hole said...

I am intrigued by your review. Was it a good book; worth reading up to the point where he goes for the gore.

I love the Bomb Theory. It probably only works in a mystery though.

.......dhole

Loren Eaton said...

Alas, I can't really recommend the book, Donna. The ending is, well, really gross. What comes before is great, but the ending really spoiled it for me.

freelanceunbound.com said...

*Spoilers* In a way, the story went the only way it could – it's a story of possession above all. I was interested in the family connection – Liddley could only act through people connected to him – though it seems the connection didn't have to be a blood tie (no pun intended).

I have just finished the novel and spent some time flicking back through it to find out if there was a connection between Liddley/Hillenbrand and the name "De La Mere" (the actual killer). I couldn't find it. To save reading it all again, can anyone shed light on this?

All in all, though, a chilling read. I also liked Aycliffe's "The Matrix" - a poor title (and no relation to the movie), but a decent, creepy horror...

Loren Eaton said...

Hello, and thanks for stopping by!

Part of my disappointment with the book was that I was expecting an ending in the vein of M.R. James. After all, the rest of the story read a lot like him. But the violence and the rape really turned me off. I don't like that in my fiction.

Still, The Matrix sounds interesting! Might have to check it out.