Reprieve by James Han Mattson (William Morrow, 2021)
James Han Mattson’s second novel (following 2017’s The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves) features a terrific premise: the horror goes too far at a controversial, full-contact haunted attraction in Lincoln, Nebraska, when a deranged stranger breaks into the Quigley House haunt and slashes the throat of one of the attendees/contestants. This grim incident is established from the outset (Mattson includes witness-stand testimonies and other court evidence), but the plot matters here are hardly cut and dried. Much like in Quigley House itself, the line between staged illusion and stark reality gets blurred, and the various characters are forced to wrestle with the question of their individual responsibility in the tragic event that transpired.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mattson possesses impressive writing skills and takes a strong literary approach to his subject. Via alternating viewpoint chapters, he delves deep into his main characters, patiently exploring the complexities of their personalities. Other characters, though, are not as well-developed: two of the four team members competing during that fateful night at Quigley House are barely there for the reader. While this is no doubt deliberate on Mattson’s part (one key player, the international student Jaidee, journeys to America in misguided romantic pursuit of his former English teacher back in Thailand–a man he knows almost nothing about), a noticeable imbalance results.
The real unevenness of the novel, though, emerges in the presentation of the narrative’s horror aspects (interspersed “the night of” chapters dramatizing the experience inside the various rooms or “cells” of Quigley House). Yes, there’s a motley crew of actors decked out as monsters and psychos, and there’s undeniable grotesquerie (lots of fake blood is spewed) and physical rigor (wooden bludgeons and shock wands are wielded against the contestants), but Mattson fails to fully capture the horrific intensity for which the haunt is notorious. Suspense naturally suffers because of the book’s achronological structure: the reader already knows who did–and did not–make it out of Quigley House unscathed. The larger issue, arguably, is that Mattson comes across as someone slumming in genre territory; on horror ground, the author’s footing is not as assured. The very safe-word that supplies the novel’s title smacks of stiltedness, sounds like nothing a customer would ever utter at an actual haunt.
For all its promise, Reprieve ultimately disappoints on a few different levels. The big plot twist explaining what really happened at Quigley House falls flat as it falls back on a scheme of sleazy manipulation that is no great surprise (since the real villain of the piece has been made clear throughout). The novel also falls short of its lofty aims, at least as they are articulated by book-jacket hype (“a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment”; “combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life”). Reprieve recalls the film Crash in its crafted intersecting of the lives of disparate characters and in its portrayal of how discrete elements can create a combustible composite, but the book (to this reviewer, at least) lacks any profound statement about issues of race, social class, or sexual orientation. Finally, Mattson’s narrative disappoints in its concluding disavowal of genre horror. A protagonist established as a horror film lover and Constant Reader of Stephen King cringes at her teenage interests when looking back on them later in life. “All that horror nonsense” is now dismissed as treacherous, and the former fandom viewed as a time of misspent youth meant to be outgrown.
Mattson is a gifted writer who scripts beautiful prose, but the house of fiction that he constructs here proves less than the sum of its parts. Failing to serve serious food for thought, it also is apt to leave a sour taste with those who truly savor horror fare.