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The Birthing House / Christopher Ransom

St. Martin’s Press / August 2009
Reviewed by: Rick R. Reed

Synopsis: It was expecting them.

Conrad and Joanna Harrison, a young couple from Los Angeles, attempt to save their marriage by leaving the pressures of the city to start anew in a quiet, rural setting. They buy a Victorian mansion that once served as a haven for unwed mothers, called a birthing house. One day when Joanna is away, the previous owner visits Conrad to bequeath a vital piece of the house’s historic heritage, a photo album that he claims “belongs to the house.” Thumbing through the old, sepia-colored photographs of midwives and fearful, unhappily pregnant girls in their starched, nineteenth-century dresses, Conrad is suddenly chilled to the bone: staring back at him with a countenance of hatred and rage is the image of his own wife….

Thus begins a story of possession, sexual obsession, and, ultimately, murder, as a centuries-old crime is reenacted in the present, turning Conrad and Joanna’s American dream into a relentless nightmare.

Review: When I read the synopsis of The Birthing House, and saw its moody cover, my hopes were high for a quality horror story, a ghost story that might rival say, oh, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

And I was not disappointed. Although Ransom’s book is not a serious contender for iconic contemporary haunted house story (as Jaskson’s was), it is original, extremely well-done from a writing craft standpoint, and, like The Haunting of Hill House, uses the fears and psychological make-up of its characters to bring readers their most terrifying and disturbing thrills.

And, like Shirley Jackson, Ransom is able to craft a killer first line, a hook that makes it impossible not to continue reading:

“Conrad Harrison found the last house he would ever know by driving the wrong way out of Chicago with a ghost in his car.”

I admit it: I am a sucker for a good first line and, although Ransom’s does not have the elegance of Jackson’s start to The Haunting of Hill House, it grabs you and compels you to read on just as much as Ms. Jackson’s beginning.

The first line of The Birthing House signals a chilling read, mysterious, and one that keeps you turning the pages. I am a jaded fan of horror novels and movies and even though my love for them continues undaunted, I am not easy to scare. A writer has to be pretty clever to induce in me the vague feeling of dread and unease that Ransom does here.

Like many haunted house tales, The Birthing House relies on established ghost story tropes to construct its conflicted world: the main characters running away from something to what they perceive as an isolated, yet safe, haven. And then, of course, discovering that their refuge is anything but; and the idea of past wrongs needing to be made right with restless spirits unable to find peace until they can find a voice and, ultimately, justice.

Ransom’s story uses these tropes to explore ideas that go beyond the average ghost story. Although the house Conrad and his estranged wife flee to has a horrible, festering secret at its core, it’s also a means to flesh out timeless themes of male/female relationships and motherhood.

It’s hard to talk too much about the actual plot of the book without giving away its delicious and dark secrets. Ransom is masterful at building up his revelations and taking us on a journey into darkness, a pitch so without light that we, as readers, need to feel our way around for a good three quarters of the book to discover just what is going on. Who is the tall woman that appears in and around the house? What kind of evil things did the doctor who originally built the house as a shelter for pregnant, unmarried women do? As we feel our way through Ransom’s darkness, our fingers light upon things that cause us to recoil…and to continue reading.

“Something had happened here, maybe several somethings involving life and death and the things that slip through the cracks in between. Something had been born here and it lived here still,” Ransom writes, which bring us back to Jackson’s elegant beginning to her classic haunted house tale: “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

If you’ve longed for an original, solid haunted house story that gives you both shocking thrills and quieter, more disturbing chills, The Birthing House may be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

Purchase The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom.

Rick R. Reed is the author of ten novels and has short fiction in more than twenty anthologies. He lives in Seattle, WA. Find out more about the author at his website.

Posted on Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 02:01PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment

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