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Arts & Life

Part horror, part lit fic, this gory new feast of a novel is almost too much

Reprieve, by James Han Mattson

James Han Mattson's Reprieve is a novel about otherness, loneliness, racism, and identity wrapped in a gory tale about a full-contact escape room attraction. Mattson walks the line between pulpy horror and smart literary fiction here, and the result is a multilayered book that has enough going on to please fans of both genres ... or turn them off.

Quigley House is an escape room where the actors can attack participants, but the participants can't retaliate until they're given permission to do so. Rumor has it that contestants are hit with sharp objects, shock wands, and dowels. However, the place is always booked up, because if the contestants collect all the envelopes they need and make it to Cell Six without calling the safe word — "reprieve" — they win $60,000. They also get a T-shirt.

On the night of April 27, 1997, a group of people comes to Quigley House: Jaidee Charoensuk, a gay international student who's come from Thailand to the United States looking for a former English teacher he fell in love with; Victor Dunlap – the teacher in question; Kendra Brown, a Black teenager who's just moved to Nebraska after losing her father; Kendra's cousin Bryan, and Leonard Grandton, a frustrated, misogynist hotel manager still reeling from a harsh breakup. Kendra works there, but the rest are participants. While they're there for the money and they know things will be rough, their night turns into a nightmare when a real murder occurs at Quigley House.

Reprieve is a bizarre sort of horror novel where the main elements of the genre — fear, gore, violence, etc — are relegated to occasional chapters that recount the group's journey through the rooms, and the characters' backstories are really what occupy center stage and take up most of the space. In fact, the book feels more like a collection of literary fiction and horror novellas linked together by a dark event than a cohesive full-length book about a creepy place and a brutal murder. (That said, this 400-page monster isn't going to make lit-fic purists into Mattson fans anyhow, because it has too much blood and guts — there's a cell in which contestants have to hack their way through fake bodies looking for the envelopes, which is definitely not Franzen territory.)

There are two standout elements in Reprieve: The first is character development. Everyone in this book is deep, nuanced, and multilayered; several of them are POC, queer, or both, and Mattson lays out their troubles on the page. For example, Kendra's move to Nebraska, a place where the Black population is scarce, forces her deeper into a sense of unease and otherness. She ends up working the parking lot at Quigley House (where every other employee is white) because she wants to impress a boy back home with whom she she watched horror on Saturdays:

Saturdays were an absolute reprieve from her zombified mother, her boring teachers, her self-absorbed best friend, and her caustic, raging, dead dead dead father, the man whose face threatened to hurtle back at her full-force should her Shawn Sims Saturdays be taken from her.

Then there are the criticisms Mattson hurls at America. Leonard is a regular guy with a normal job — but he develops an unlikely friendship with John Forrester, the owner of Quigley House, which warps him into an angry misogynist whose jingoism knows no bounds. When Forrester convinces him to go to Thailand — where they understand "the unique needs of American men" — Leonard falls for a sex worker and talks to her, despite the language barrier, about how America is "the best country in the world." Leonard is a superb example of what happens when "despair, gloom, tedium, ennui" make someone so vulnerable, they'll hold on to any idea as long as it makes them feel better about themselves.

The novelette-sized chapters about each character are so lengthy and detailed that it's easy to get lost and forget about not only the horror, but also the other characters. Only Mattson's storytelling skills keep the whole thing from being self-indulgent.

Everything about Quigley House is pure horror. The house itself was named after the fictitious Martha Quigley, a woman who, "at night, had prowled around the neighboring towns in black, sneaking through windows, kidnapping children, chaining them up in her basement." Martha would mutilate them to death and bury them in her backyard. But her fake story, and the attraction built around it, takes a back seat to the lives of Kendra, Leonard, and Jaidee — and that's the novel's only shortfall: The novelette-sized chapters about each character are so lengthy and detailed that it's easy to get lost and forget about not only the horror, but also the other characters. Only Mattson's storytelling skills keep the whole thing from being self-indulgent.

Reprieve contains some wonderful character arcs beyond just Leonard (watching Jaidee begin to despise other international students because of their lack of English skills and "ethnic clothing" is a powerful thing) and a good dose of monsters and violence. Also, the retelling of that night, delivered through chapters in each room and later cross-examination excerpts, is engaging. Taken all together, it's a bit much at times, though luckily, Mattson always maintains control. Still, readers should enter at their own risk. The experience might be harrowing — but just like Quigley House, the reward at the end is worth it.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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