The House of Lost Souls
F G Cottam
Thomas Dunne, 2009
Yes, October is gone but I’m still finishing up with some scary books that took me a bit longer to read than I intended. The first of those, The House of Lost Souls, is a recent entry to the haunted house genre. My initial impressions of the novel were extremely favorable but were later mitigated by a lengthy flashback sequence which interrupted what I felt was the stronger narrative thread and slowed the novel down considerably. The novel centers around the mystery and horror of the Fischer House, a brooding castle-like mansion whose former owner traveling in circles with likes of Aleister Crowley and whose legacy of dark magic still touches the world to this day. The novel focuses on two characters the nervous Paul Seaton, whose early encounter with the Fischer House has ruined him, and Nick Mason a special forces operative whose sister’s encounter with the house stirs the evil it contains.
Note: there are some spoilers towards the end of this review.
The novel opens with a scene that, perhaps inadvertently, is creepy on more than one level. As Mason, secluded in what amounts to a hunter’s blind, spies upon his sister as she attends the funeral of one her friends (a friend that also entered the Fischer house) and witnesses the fact that the deceased friend also seems to be in attendance. Cottam does a wonderful job of setting a dark and oppressive atmosphere though I was perhaps equally disturbed by Mason’s stalker-like watch over his sister. From there the novel shifts over to Seaton who, unlike Mason, seems more willing to acknowledge the sudden (re)appearance of ghostly presences around him and his weary regard for their presence hinting at a deeper involvement with the preceding.
Cottam spends a lot of time building on the atmosphere of dread in these early chapters. From the darkened skies and wet weather, the sudden flare of radios, to the creeping assault of moss and shadow on a secluded university Cottam builds layer upon layer as the force arrayed against Seaton and Mason seems to build. Seaton and Mason eventually meet in a windswept seaside town where Mason’s childhood home is festooned with the trophies of his father’s exploits in Africa. It is there that narrative loses some its character. While the flashback to Mason’s first encounters with weird is a neat change of pace, and puts a new spin on his involvement in the story, the lengthy flashback (about the entire middle third of the book) detailing Seaton’s first steps towards the Fischer House lacks the same punch as these early sections. The dark and dank atmosphere of fear and dread dissolves into a nostalgic look back at a younger Seaton and while some of the horror creeps back into the tale towards its finale the flashback sequence never reaches the height of the present day narrative.
To be entirely fair the lengthy Seaton flashback isn’t badly written and Cottom evokes a sense of loss and inevitable tragedy throughout the whole thing. Knowing the frightened creature that Seaton will become while watching his heedless exploration of the mystery behind the disappearance of a photographer associate of Martin Fischer is like watching a car accident in slow motion; with nothing you can do to stop it. In any other book this section would certainly be enjoyable but after the creepiness of the atmosphere in the early chapters this middle ground makes for some seriously disappointing reading. Things improve once we return to the present. However, the remaining chapters while chock full of the same dread and fear of the opening of the novel, smacks of contrivance that strains credulity. Yes I know this is a tale of the supernatural but the sudden introduction of something that feels a bit too much like destiny in those final chapters robs the novel of some indefinable quality. I think it’s that we go from two mostly ordinary individuals to two men seemingly set up to be heroes from very early in their lives. Horror, for me at least, has always been the province of the Everyman and the conclusion The House of Lost Souls feels like something out of a fantasy novel.
By and large I found The House of Lost Souls to be an ultimately enjoyable, if somewhat disappointing, experience. Those initial chapters at the start of the novel stand firmly amongst some of the best horror I’ve read and the sequence at the University, where Seaton questions the ethics professor who brought the four girls to Fischer House, remains particularly vivid in my mind. Few novels I’ve read have gone so quickly from excellent to passable and I’m guessing if I hadn’t fallen so hard for those first few pages that I wouldn’t be as disappointed by the remainder of the experience. Regardless, The House of Lost Souls is definitely worth a look and F. G. Cottom and author to watch out far. This is Cottam’s US debut, Dark Echo, his second US novel, was released back in August and seems to use a similar in theme.