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The Unseen / Alexandra Sokoloff

St. Martin’s Press / May 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Poltergeists and parapsychology take center stage in Alexandra Sokoloff’s third novel, The Unseen. Caution: Falling rocks and ghostly eroticism ahead.

Dr. Laurel MacDonald, a young psychology professor on the run from heartbreak and betrayal, takes a teaching post at Duke University. For the California transplant, Durham, North Carolina is a bit of a culture shock – from the old southern customs and laid back ways of the people to the colorful change of seasons and reconnection with distant relatives. With the “publish or perish” aspect of her new university gig looming, MacDonald stumbles upon the newly released files from the world-famous Rhine parapsychology experiments – during which Dr. Rhine and his researchers scientifically proved the existence of ESP - and reluctantly teams up with a handsome colleague to replicate a poltergeist investigation from 1965. Unbeknownst to MacDonald and company – which includes Dr. Brendan Cody and two gifted students – the 1965 haunted house investigation ended with members of the original research team either dead or insane. Before you can say The Legend of Hell House, the mirrors are shattering, the sexual tension is crackling, and rocks are falling from the sky in this fast-paced, well-executed supernatural thriller.

The Unseen builds upon the best elements of Sokoloff’s two previous novels – 2006’s The Harrowing and last year’s The Price – to create a hybrid third effort. Like The Harrowing, we’re back in a college setting – this time Duke University – and seemingly dealing with angry spirits. But, like in The Price, Sokoloff casts doubts on whether the spooky doings at hand are paranormal or just normal – or perhaps a combination of the two:

The knocking started again. This time it was downstairs, muffled…curiously, the sound seemed the exact same distance away. Slow, steady thumps.

Listening to it, all of Laurel’s suspicions about a human source fled her. She could feel in her marrow – this was other. It was mind-shattering, soul-shattering. Her whole body was in revolt against the essential wrongness of it, the irrationality, the impossibility. She could feel the same reaction in the other three; they all stood still and poised in disbelief, in outrage, in awe.

It’s in her ability to keep readers straddling this literary tightrope that Sokoloff achieves her greatest level of success in creating genuine supernatural suspense.

Throughout The Unseen, Sokoloff’s screenwriting background is evident – to mostly positive effect. The novel chugs along like a well-edited hour and a half film, with perfectly placed peaks and valleys in the action and dialogue that’s script-ready. At times, the novel feels so much like a Hollywood screenplay that one half expects to see stage directions; fortunately, Sokoloff knows a thing or two about balance and such feelings of cinematic composition are fleeting. Literary prowess adequately dismisses Hollywood sensibility, for example, whenever Sokoloff juxtaposes the colorless, fast-paced Californian landscape against the drawling, textured old money world of North Carolina. Potential versus privilege.

The characters are casting agent friendly (one can almost see Kate Hudson or Melissa George stepping in to play MacDonald, Ryan Reynolds or Jake Gllyenhaal in the Cody role) with likeability quotients kept high – even the unlikable characters possess nothing more than a few minor personality flaws. Unlike previous efforts, it’s her supporting players that shine here. Tyler Mountford, one of the two Duke students selected to tag along on the investigation, practically oozes sexuality and southern charm right off the pages with his “Cheshire cat smile” and the “slouch in his hips,” while Katrina DeVore (who jumps off the page as a young Christina Ricci) is impeccably rendered in all her southern Gothic girl-meets-privilege moodiness.

With The Unseen, Sokoloff establishes herself as a leader among the horror-thriller hybrid crowd. She knows just when to chill, and just when to thrill. It’s the perfect temperature for a genre climate in which the horror novel is lukewarm at best and the thriller is hot – the ideal conditions to create a perfect storm of sales and suspense.

Purchase The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff.

Posted on Monday, May 25, 2009 at 03:45PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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