Friday, January 3, 2020

Wonderland by Zoje Stage

Zoje Stage seems to be taking things that most people like and find wholesome and turning them into objects of horror. Children? Check. Nature? Check. What's next... bake sales? Dogs? Sunsets? Whatever she picks, I'm sure I'll find it totally validating, because this book reminded me why I hate camping and hiking so much. Nature can be creepy. I don't think I've ever been so freaked out by trees since I read UPROOTED by Naomi Novik.

This book is about a family that ends up moving to the middle of nowhere so the husband, Shaw, can paint. His wife, Orla, is a retired ballerina and now that her star has faded, she's going to be the one taking care of the kids in their reclusive cabin in the woods. But what first seems like a rustic and charming idyll quickly starts to become uneasy and horrifying as the family starts to see things that can't be explained... like lights, strange weather, and other phenomena that defy rational explanations, but somehow seem to be tied to the mysterious white pine on their property. And then, things start to get really, really twisted...

...Like a tree root! LOL jk. 

For the first 75% of the book, I was deliberating on giving this book 5 stars. Stage captures in this book the ambient horror that made Ira Levin such a lasting read. You don't need blood and body counts to make a horror novel good; the atmosphere in this book is fantastic. Regardless of what you end up deciding about WONDERLAND, it is, unquestionably, a better book than BABY TEETH. The character development is more refined, it is less cheesy horror movie and more Kubrickian, and the writing is much more mature-- and even lyrical in some parts. I liked this a lot more, and found it way less frustrating than I did BABY TEETH, which felt like a bad 80s horror movie at times.

The last 25% of this book got a little weird. And I don't want to say any more about it, because I don't want to spoil the ending, but to explain why this didn't end up getting a more solid 4 stars from me, or even a five, I want to tell you about this movie called The Langoliers, which is one of Stephen King's lesser-known projects. It's a horror movie that is filled with pulse-pounding, spine-chilling build-up, which is ruined in an instant during the grand reveal where you are treated to some truly heinous CGI. I have a shelf on Goodreads called "The Langoliers Effect" where I shelve horror novels whose effects are slightly tarnished by their reveals, and I feel like that is slightly the case here. It doesn't spoil the book but it does get kind of weird, and not necessarily in the good kind of way.

If you enjoy Ira Levin or M. Night Shyamalan 's good movies, I think you will like this. The atmosphere is nicely crafted and the writing is great and it is so freaking creepy. Even if you didn't like her first book, BABY TEETH, I would still urge you to give this one a try, as it's quite a different book from her first, and she's improved so much between then and now that I'm really excited for whatever she decides to put out there next, because I'm sure it will be even better.

P.S. The children are named Eleanor Queen and Tycho and the parents are named Shaw and Orla. Wot.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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