Like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, Damien Angelica Walters’ Paper Tigers is the kind of novel I pick up to read while barely glancing at the blurb on the back cover. All I needed was a glimpse of the book’s main features—a young woman suffering the physical and emotional wounds of a fire, a rather unusual photo album discovered in an antique shop, and ancient ghosts with cruel intentions—and I was hooked. And, fortunately, through the tragic story of a former teacher named Alison and her longing to recover from a devastating loss, Walters doesn’t disappoint, weaving an interlocking story of past and present that leads to a shattering conclusion.
A lonely woman, her body scarred by burn injuries so severe she has named herself “monstergirl,” Alison struggles to get through just about every single day. Her doctors make her uncomfortable, while her mother and physical therapist can only do so much before driving Alison away in fear and depression. Wrapped in a scarf, which is both her protection from the cold weather and a mask that hides her face, Alison comes upon an antique shop. There she adds a dusty, cracked photo album to her collection, her refuge from a world that has turned against her. Only this photo album is different; its timeworn pages enable Alison to enter into them, offering her a detailed and ultimately horrific look into the lives of the people in the photos. The ghosts she discovers have the power to heal Alison’s scars, even replace her missing fingers—but only if she adheres to their every sinister demand.
Due to Paper Tigers containing just a few characters and one main setting, almost all of the narrative consists of Alison transitioning back and forth between her life in the present and the newly-discovered dimensions of the photo album. However, this is not a limitation, as Walters imbues the ghost-house with frightening Gothic details (a Victorian house with a haunted past, an antique grandfather clock, the ghostly tinkling of piano keys, a bizarre poem) that maintain the plot’s momentum and keep the mystery driving until the final chapters. But the novel’s most powerful moments come from tender scenes in which the photo album has made Alison “whole” again. Our hearts break along with hers when she wakes up to find that her charred skin, twisted scars, and glass eye have returned—the dream of no longer being “monstergirl” can only last so long.
While the author presents the fantastical world of the photo album with vivid and evocative details, she also pulls no punches when it comes to straight-up, visceral horror. One lengthy sequence involves Alison wandering in a panic through the ghost-house, stumbling upon one graphic scene after the next, including a body that rots into a desiccated corpse before her very eyes and a young woman who bleeds profusely from the stumps of her hands. And just when readers might think they know where Paper Tigers is heading at the end, Walters throws them askew, presenting a resolution that is all at once honest, courageous, and horrific. Adding to this complete package is the eerie presentation of the book itself, including a hypnotic cover and a repeated interior image that grows in significance as the novel reaches it climax.
If I had to pick one gripe about Paper Tigers, it would be the number of typographical errors. Missing punctuation, missing words, one sentence with all the words jammed together, some pages with faded font and some with darkened font—these errors came as a surprise and made for a jarring read at times. I triple-checked these instances to make sure they were not stylistic choices on the part of the author, and I feel confident in saying they are not. Other than this quibble, Damien Angelica Walters’ Paper Tigers is an outstanding novel, a must-read for fans of slow-burning ghost stories and full-throttle horror alike.
Buy it here.
About the author: Josh Hancock is the author of two epistolary horror novels, The Girls of October (2015) and The Devil and My Daughter (2016), both published by Burning Bulb Press.