For some, Halloween is a season, a time to carve pumpkins, dress in costume, and experience something a little spooky. For others, Halloween is a state of mind, a way of life.
Indeed, Ray Bradbury had the final word on the matter at the top of his quintessential classic, The October Country:
“. . . That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain . . .”
For those, the Halloween season is everywhere, woven into every action, every choice; it follows them on their walk to work and waits for them behind the darkened windows of their empty homes. It colors their friendships and leads them to haunted corners of the world where shadowed mysteries wait.
These are autumn people. These are the characters you will meet in Josh Hancock’s Death Rituals.
Told through a series of news articles, blog posts, opinion pieces, comment sections, and other written artifacts, Death Rituals tells the story of Cherie Alvarez, a young woman whose tragic story begins at the age of seven when her mother was brutally murdered by a homeless manic.
Despite this horrific experience, Cherie grows into an intelligent, well-adjusted, and empathetic young woman. After being bullied by classmates uncomfortable with her past, Cherie begins an anti-bullying campaign via a school haunted house. Oh yes, you wouldn’t guess it based on her past, but Cherie’s interests run on the dark side.
Haunted houses, horror movies (generally late 70s and 80s era), writing, and theater are Cherie’s favorite pastimes, and she puts them to good use. As a college freshman, she and her friends even create an interactive theatrical horror experience that garners them some positive attention. (The entire short play is presented in the book)
Things become tense, however, when Cherie’s dissenting dissertation on “extreme” haunted houses goes viral. Her paper illuminates the problematic world created when guests can’t consent to the extreme—and sometimes dangerous—acts performed in these attractions.
The worst offender, in Cherie’s opinion, is Bobby Pruit, an extreme haunted house creator with a rock star look and theatrical way of speaking. His haunted house, Death Rituals, is split into three sections loosely inspired by the classic horror films Terror Train, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Carrie with an intro section highlighting real horrific crimes and their perpetrators.
Within the haunted house, guests are groped and sexually threatened, tied up and forced to eat slop, bullied, scratched, and forced to continue no matter how much they plead. Guests frequently complain about the severity of the haunted house saying that is an excuse to abuse rather than create the illusion of fear.
For Pruitt, that’s the point. He believes true fear can only be achieved when consent is gone.
Unfortunately for Pruitt, Cherie’s paper goes viral. The negative press causes Death Rituals to lose its audience, pushing Pruitt to move on to the next project, leaving him with a bit of a grudge.
But never fear, in no time at all Pruitt is on to the next extreme attraction. Only problem is when you make your career in extreme haunts, it’s only a matter of time before something . . . irreversible happens.
I love haunted houses (I know, you’re totally shocked) and–although I didn’t know it before I began–a full story about them was exactly what I wanted to read this October.
The story’s main struggle between what I’ll call traditional horror/haunt fans and extreme haunters was the type of inspired idea that sets a horror writer away from the pack. As a lifelong horror fan, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of extreme haunted houses. I’m always looking for a good scare, and the extreme houses seem like the logical next step for a desensitized horror fan.
And yet, like Cherie and her friends, further investigation into the extreme attractions left me less frightened than concerned (maybe I’m getting old). Is someone forcing you to eat dog food really scary or is it just gross? Is being tied up against your will spooky fun or is it potentially dangerous? What protections do haunt workers have against frightened guests who may last out? Questions like these are Death Rituals’ bread and butter.
As I mentioned before, the book is made up of articles, transcripts, and essays that are meant to be a companion piece to The Apple Hill Murders a fictional television documentary chronicling the events in Cherie’s story from the death of her mother to present day. When I first sat down with Josh Hancock’s book, I was skeptical of the disjointed narrative. Part of this skepticism came from a layout choice beyond Hancock’s control.
(Note: Don’t start your front matter with real book review quotes if your author’s book-within-a-book begins with fictional book review quotes. This is a good way for readers to miss the first pages of a story.)
But by the time the story reached Pruitt’s first interview, I was completely immersed in the storytelling and glad for Hancock’s narrative choice. The lack of an omniscient storyteller forced me to try to fill in the gaps left between the presented pieces, successfully evoking that feeling of utter helplessness when trying to understand someone’s motivations from the outside. That jaw-clenching unease which reminds you you’ll never know what’s going on in someone’s head. That feeling a person’s words, and even their actions, don’t tell the whole story.
Hancock is masterful with character manipulation, which keeps the reader engaged while they try to understand the characters. I began to feel like I knew the characters about one third of the way into the book, but Hancock just keep changing the lens, showing me Cherie’s world from so many different dilations that at the halfway mark I rejected my presumptions, only to be confronted with my original suspicions at the very end of the book. To that I say, “well played.”
It takes a confident writer to choose the narrative path less traveled. To say “no, we’ll get there” and push for an original, satisfying ending free of cliches. Josh Hancock is that type of author, and he delivers.
Sure, there were a couple things that brought my head up: Bobby Pruitt’s melodramatic, mustache-twirling way of speaking took some of the tension out of a couple of scenes. Don’t get me wrong; I liked that he was an insufferable edgelord, but lines about pitt bulls with buck shot in their bellies still having teeth to bite with was a little eye-roll for me.
And yet, it’s a testament to Hancock’s writing that an eye-roll may have been exact reaction he was going for. I just don’t know, and that’s great.
If you like the crunch of fallen leaves and crisp apples; if the gentle hiss of corn husks in the night makes you smile; if paper witches and jack o’ lanterns fill you with a sweet ache, then give Death Rituals a read. It’s the perfect book for a cold, Samhain night.
Get yours here.