Horrid by Katrina Leno
Published by Little, Brown, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
I very rarely pick up YA books these days, but this one intrigued me enough to consider giving it a shot. On the whole, I’m glad I did; its slower, more character focussed approach to horror allowing it to stand out in an otherwise saturated genre.
The story opens following the sudden death of Jane’s father. Facing financial strain, and hoping to escape their grief, she and her mother are forced to sell their house in California and relocate to North Manor; a run down, inherited property in rural Maine. It’s clear that Jane’s mother never wanted to return to her childhood home, and as strange goings on begin to occur, and whispers of a dark past grow ever more apparent, it soon becomes clear why.
The novel is chiefly concerned with mental health, both the impact of grief and the influence of inherited, generational trauma. It is definitely at its strongest when it leans into these more cerebral elements, embracing the ambiguity of true horror versus horror of the mind. I particularly appreciated that Leno wasn’t afraid to present us with a protagonist who is clearly flawed. Jane, suffering from severe anger issues, is not always easy to like, let alone to root for, and this moral complexity adds depth and dimension to the narrative.
I also enjoyed the subtext about the comfort and escapism offered by books. We are repeatedly told how much Jane loves to read, especially the works of Agatha Christie. When her anger threatens to overwhelm her, Jane’s preferred coping method is to secretly eat a page from one of her books. In a thematic sense, the act of consuming literature helps to ease her mood, but it also establishes Jane’s mental state as increasingly unreliable. Surreal elements like this, and the story’s twisted climax, really give the novel some punch, and I would have loved Leno to push them even further.
Less successful are the book’s pacing and structure. The Big Reveal hinges around a so-called “secret de Polichinelle”. Put simply, this means an open secret that everyone knows except the protagonist, but which no one mentions because they assume the protagonist does already know. This technique can be successful, but feels laboured in this instance. Not only is there a convoluted means of shoehorning its definition into the story, it also becomes clear to the reader what’s going on long before it occurs to Jane. This results in a lot of meandering, with everyone skirting around the (obvious) truth, and not much else going on to justify the word count.
Solid in its ideas but flawed in execution, Horrid is both singular and readable enough to be worth checking out if you feel at all tempted.