While You Sleep by Stephanie Merritt
Genres/Descriptors: thriller; mystery; horror; gothic; paranormal
Publication Date (US): March 5th, 2019
Check it out on Goodreads
What’s it about?
On an small island off the coast of Scotland, the McBride house has been the center of rumors and strange occurrences for over a century, since a widow and her son died under mysterious circumstances.
Zoe Adams, an American woman, wants to get away from a bad marriage, and arranges to rent the house for a few week for some peace and time to herself. Her peace is short-lived, with disturbing incidents, strange singing coming from somewhere in the house, and the constant sense of being watches.
The locals blame everything on the house, but Zoe isn’t convinced. She doesn’t buy into the haunted house story, and thinks there must be a rational explanation for what she’s experiencing, and that the possible danger lurking is no phantom.
If you’re looking for something new, without the tired haunted house tropes, this isn’t it.
When I found this on Net Galley (I believe it came out last spring in the UK, but is now being released in the US), I had to request it. I’m a horror junkie, and a sucker for gothic, haunted house stories. I’m always hoping to find something that surprises me, or, if it doesn’t surprise me, at least entertains me for a while.
This one kind of managed to entertain me, but I was never surprised by anything. I had the entire story figured out from very early on, and I’m not happy about that. There are a few tropes I encounter somewhat frequently in horror (movies and books) that really irritate me, and this one had at least a couple of those. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about those things without giving away spoilers. I’ll just say that I kept hoping I was going to be wrong, that this book was not going to go where I thought it was, but then it did. (Actually, I am going to do spoilers, but they will be at the end, with a warning in bold so you can skip over them.)
Before I get into what I didn’t like, I will say that I enjoyed the writing. Stephanie Merritt is not a bad writer, and I will definitely be looking into her other books. I think she is certainly capable of writing a good story, this one just didn’t work for me personally.
The characters were okay, but not great. I only really liked Charles (known by locals as The Professor), but by the end I wasn’t even a huge fan of his character. (I didn’t dislike him, I was just not surprised by anything.)
Zoe just annoyed me. I wanted to like her, but I was pretty sure from the first few chapters that she was going to be a particular cliche, and I was right (and so angry about it).
The locals were what you would expect: superstitious, close-knit, and a tendency to not trust strangers. And, of course, there was the quintessential creepy perv, because we can’t have a story about a woman spending time alone without one of those, can we? (The more I think about this book, the more irritated I become.)
While I had somewhat high hopes at least for the atmosphere of this one, it fell short for me. It started off alright, and I got excited. Maybe this one would succeed in creeping me out! A restored (but still creepy) old house, strange sounds and happenings, the isolation… It seemed perfect, and I was so ready to feel claustrophobic and uneasy. That lasted about a minute, and then it never got creepy (in the paranormal way) again. If you’re easily scared, this might not be an issue for you, though.
**If you think of trigger warnings as spoilers, skip to the next paragraph.** This one definitely needs TWs, in my opinion, for: sexual content, sexual encounters that are non-consensual/have dubious consent (including adults with a minor), sexual assault/threat of assault, animal death and mutilation (that one is pretty brief and not too graphic, but I thought it was only there for shock value), mental illness as a plot device; death of children.
This book has graphic sexual scenes, so if that makes you uncomfortable, you should skip it. I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t love it. I read erotica, so it didn’t shock me or anything, but I wasn’t expecting it.
I wanted to like this so much more than I did, and I’m not sure if it’s me (and my increasing exasperation with certain tropes in horror) or the book, but it didn’t really work for me. The plot was a lot of cliches, which isn’t necessarily bad, I was just hoping for something new, or a unique spin on tropes that took it in an unexpected direction.
Skip past this if you don’t want spoilers.
I knew, early on, that Zoe’s son was going to be dead, and that it was going to come out that she was dealing with some kind of mental illness or something. I hate that. I hate mental illness being used as a plot device, especially in horror and thrillers. Especially when you pair that up with something like paranormal events, in which women are often thought to be crazy or whatever anyway. (Think about haunted house stories. How often are the women, who are usually the ones experiencing the worst of things, believed by other people?) I’m so tired of it.
I’m also sick of this trope where women can’t seem to get through a horror or thriller without being sexually assaulted. In this one Zoe is repeatedly made very uncomfortable by the local pervert, because of his comments towards her, and that’s the tame stuff. At their first meeting, his touched her breast. Later, he assaults her, gropes her, and threatens to rape her.
There’s also the weird incubus thing with the house, which is supposed to explain people losing control and turning into sex-crazed beasts. I get that Zoe consented to sex with the teacher, but…if we accept that the house is exerting influence over the people inside, it’s dubious consent at best. And I am pissed about how that turned out, with her being pregnant with a new half-incubus fetus.
I don’t even have words for the thing with the teenage girl. I saw it coming, but I didn’t expect it to unfold quite the way it did. I was pretty sure she had a sexual relationship with the creepy perv, but gods. There is a kind of explicit scene in which she’s tied up in a sexual way (she seems to be consenting, but again, she’s underage and there’s the influence of the house going on), with not just him, but another middle-aged character. I am so beyond sick of situations like this being used in horror so frequently. We have enough of this in the real world, so it’s not exactly fun to read about it in so many books. (I don’t think I would complain about the sexual assault and such if it wasn’t so prevalent.)
End of spoilers
I’m giving it 2 out of 5 stars (actual rating more like 2.5, but I didn’t want to round up to 3 stars).
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
I received an eARC from NetGalley in exchange for review.