Written by: Josh Hancock
I should start out this review by saying that I have never watched a single “ghost hunting” TV show from beginning to end. I don’t even know if programs like Ghost Hunters or Paranormal State are even on the tube anymore. I always found these shows deceptively edited and hokey—and most of all, their reenactments of supposedly paranormal events are rarely scary.
This cursory background brings me to Hunter Shea’s Island of the Forbidden, out now from Samhain Publishing. Heavy on eerie atmosphere and fast-paced dialogue that keeps the story moving at a rapid clip, the novel tells the story of paranormal investigator Jessica Backman and a haunted stretch of land known as Ormsby Island. Reeling from past investigations that deeply affected her, Jessica reluctantly agrees to visit the island in order to help Tobe and Daphne Harper rid their South Carolina mansion of ghosts. Jessica and her psychic sidekick, Eddie Home, immediately discover that all is not well on the island. All the familiar trappings of ghost lore emerge, including cold spots, a Colonial-style house that possesses a life of its own, and several “shimmering wraiths” that appear to both Jessica and Eddie throughout the story. With shades of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Shea’s novel capitalizes on the secluded setting to make readers truly feel the isolation of the characters. One scene, in which Jessica tries to flee the island only to discover the boat’s engine has been frozen over by the spirits of the island, is particularly effective in conveying just how cut-off the characters are from the comforts of “normal” society. The Ormsby house, too, comes alive through vivid detail, including oddly-colored rooms, creaking hardwood floors, locked doors, a mysterious attic, and the surrounding fog and graveyard.
The novel lost me somewhat when a ghost-hunting film crew arrives at the island to document the paranormal events, especially the continual appearance of a spectral gang called the Lost Kids. As I mentioned above, I don’t find the archetype of “ghost-hunters” and “ghost-hunting” frightening. Through economy of language and dialogue, Shea keeps the plot moving and I was never bored—but I was never creeped out either. The characters are mostly ghost-hunters and psychics, so they are generally accepting of the fact that the island and house are haunted. Their “all in a day’s work” attitude toward the paranormal lulled me into some passive reading, especially in the first half of the book. Jessica and Eddie do a lot of talking and observing in those pages, noting the comings and goings of these “energy beings,” but the true action of the story doesn’t really pick up until close to the end. It was only then that Island of the Forbidden really grabbed and held my attention, especially as the tone of the novel grew considerably darker, the imagery turned more horrific, and the generational secrets of the island began to unravel. The conclusion, with its traces of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and 1980’s The Changeling, had just enough of a horror edge to it to make me want to learn the truth behind the Ormsby House and the “forbidden” island on which it stands.
Readers looking for gore, violence, or a genuinely macabre tone might be disappointed by Hunter Shea’s Island of the Forbidden. But once the plot twists start coming, and the lives of the characters are threatened by the supernatural forces that rule the island, even hardcore horror fans should find something to like. Jessica Blackman is a well-drawn character whose tough exterior and empathy for children make her instantly likeable. In addition, the book is appropriate for many age levels, including young ones (about 13 and up) who might be just starting to develop an interest in the horror genre. Recommended for those readers interested in the supernatural adventure / paranormal investigation sub-genre.
Order it here.