Within These Walls – Ania Ahlborn
With his marriage on the rocks and his life in shambles, washed up crime writer Lucas Graham is desperate for a comeback. So when he’s promised exclusive access to notorious cult leader and death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, the opportunity is too good to pass up. Lucas leaves New York for the scene of the crime—a split-level farmhouse on the gray-sanded beach of Washington State—a house whose foundation is steeped in the blood of Halcomb’s diviners; runaways who, thirty years prior, were drawn to his message of family, unity, and unconditional love. Lucas wants to tell the real story of Halcomb’s faithful departed, but when Halcomb goes back on his promise of granting Lucas exclusive information on the case, he’s left to put the story together on his own. Except he is not alone. For Jeffrey Halcomb promised his devout eternal life . . . and within these walls, they’re far from dead.
Review: I have questions. So many questions . . .
Struggling crime writer Lucas Graham gets a letter from notorious cult leader Jeffrey Halcomb. Halcomb promises that he’ll tell Lucas why he forced his followers to commit suicide, but there’s a catch. Halcomb will only do the interview if Lucas agrees to move into the house where the suicides occurred. Since Lucas’s marriage sucks, he takes his kid, goes to Washington State, and moves into the suicide house. Minutes after walking into their new home, strange things start happening. Maybe Halcomb’s followers aren’t really dead. Can Lucas figure out what’s going on in the house without destroying his relationship with his family?
I’m not going to lie, I was apprehensive about starting this book. I don’t usually read horror about cults because it tends to be stupidly Hollywoodish. Authors forget that cult followers aren’t robots. They do have brains. Cult horror usually makes me roll my eyes so much that I get a headache. Still, the synopsis of this novel sounded too good to pass up, and I was in the mood for a terrifying haunted house story.
Unfortunately, the most terrifying part of this story is the characters’ relationships. Lucas and his wife are both self-centered jerks. Their kid is a brat. Nobody communicates. They sit around whining about each other and feeling sorry for themselves. It’s messy.
This novel is a fat bastard (over 400 pages), but it’s very readable. I could happily read a few hundred pages in one sitting. The plot is entertaining and twisty, but I couldn’t help being disappointed when I finished it. I think with more character development, this book could have been amazing.
The story moves back and forth between Lucas in the present day and the cult in the 1980s. I expected to love the cult parts, but there are just too many holes. The 1980s flashbacks focus on Audra, a mentally ill woman who used to own Lucas’s house. She’s so depressed that her only friend has to drag her out of the house for occasional walks. On one of their walks, Audra meets Jeffrey Halcomb, falls in instalove with him, and invites him and his followers to live in her house. It’s literally described as “love at first sight.” I guess this happens because Jeffrey has magic powers? He can make people love him? I don’t know. I didn’t believe it. Audra is a loner, but she suddenly craves company so badly that she lets 9 homeless people move into her house?
“She wept, and she told herself it was joy.” – Within These Walls
Maybe the story would have been scarier if I knew more about Jeffrey? Why is Audra so special that he needs her? Why does he need followers at all? He doesn’t care about them, and he doesn’t seem to be getting anything from them. Why did he have to kill all of them and not just Audra? Is he some kind of demon? Jeffrey is too mysterious to be scary. I can’t be scared if I don’t understand what he’s doing.
“That kind of loss came with a lot of guilt, and guilt made people defensive.” – Within These Walls
The cult also didn’t scare me. There isn’t a slow buildup of tension or anything. Jeffrey doesn’t become more manipulative or controlling as the story goes on. The followers know Jeffrey’s plan before they meet Audra. Their plan works out (almost) perfectly. It kind of seems like the author is relying on the word “cult” to be scary and not doing much work to make the actual group scary.
There are also some pacing problems where the story becomes repetitive and draggy. Some of the twists are predictable. Overall, I was disappointed.
Within These Walls is an entertaining way to kill a few hours, but I was left with a lot of unanswered questions.
“Stories about murder and darkness had a definite pull; they were alluring in how forbidden they were.” – Within These Walls