Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Alice Walks by Michael Aronovitz

Barring religious and mythological texts, the oldest form of horror tale is that of the ghost story. Mankind has always been fascinated with spirits and the afterlife, and every culture not only has their own idea of what happens to us after we die, but every culture also has their own idea of ghosts.

Ghost stories in Western culture became popular in the Victorian era, with writers such as Le Fanu. The turn of the century saw a rise in spiritualism, and an even bigger rise in the ghost story. M.R. James, Oliver Onions, and Algernon Blackwood all helped foster the ghost story even further.

Now, early on in the 21st century, ghosts still remain as popular as ever. I can’t even turn on the TV without finding it riddled with ghost-hunting shows, or shows like Paranormal Witness, where people share their experiences while actors recreate key scenes. Horror cinema is much the same, with ghost films seeing another rise in popularity due to movies such as Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. Publishers seem to be jumping on this opportunity as well, in the last two-three years alone I could easily name five or more anthologies all dealing with hauntings and ghosts, helmed by many of the big-name editors including Ellen Datlow, Stephen Jones and Paula Guran, and there’s definitely no shortage of novels dealing with the subject either.

Readers may wonder why I’ve included such a lengthy opening talking about ghost stories without getting to the review. The reason is simple: it has to be understood that the industry is flooded with ghost fiction. Some use time-worn tropes but are written well enough that they are worth reading. Some take the concept of ghosts in radical new directions, making for a fresh take on the genre. Michael Aronovitz’s Alice Walks does a bit of both.

I came across this book on a recommendation by my friend CM Muller. It didn’t hurt that the book was published by Centipede Press either, as Centipede Press is pretty much synonymous with quality. I went through this book rather quickly, and putting it down to head into work was a struggle. 

Alice Walks takes place in a Pennsylvania suburb in the 1970s. The book’s narrator, now an older man suffering from health problems in modern time, is passing his story on to his son. Michael, the narrator, relates the life-changing events that took place during the winter of his own fourteenth year, when he and two friends go playing around in the cemetery his father works and awaken the spirit of a girl their own age that rather recently died. Things escalate from there.

Aronovitz does a masterful job at conveying character and setting. His characters are believable, and he easily puts the reader in the shoes of Michael, who is a rather average fourteen year old boy. The emotional weight that Michael feels every day in his household, due to his father’s shameful suspension from a teaching career over dubious circumstances, has a very authentic feel to it.

When it comes to the ghost, Aronovitz also does something fresh. Alice is a very interesting ghost as far as ghosts go. Many times ghost stories can lose their sense of terror by the end, when the ghost usually becomes a sympathetic figure. The reader finds out that the ghost responsible for all the spooky moments was a murder victim, trying to gain closure and finally be at peace. Aronovitz does something much different with Alice, who goes from evoking terror, to being a sympathetic figure, and then back to evoking terror. Alice’s motivations are different from the norm, and this keeps the story very interesting, as the reader never knows what to expect.

Alice Walks is a shorter novel, and Aronovitz has a strong sense of pace, never allowing the story to slow down or become overburdened and bloated. This sense of focus, combined with an excellent sense of character and setting, as well as an original take on the ghost, make for an excellent debut and marks Aronovitz as a writer to watch. Being a Centipede Press book, the novel's price tag is heftier than average, but it’s worth every penny.

The novel can be bought HERE.

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