I Call Upon Thee
by Ania Ahlborn
August 7th 2017, Pocket Star
Maggie Olsen had a pretty ordinary childhood—swimming and sleepovers, movie nights and dad jokes.
Then there were the other things: the shadow that followed her home from the cemetery and settled into the corners of her home, refusing to let her grow up in peace.
Now, after three years away from the place she’s convinced she inadvertently haunted, Maggie is forced to return to the sweltering heat of a Savannah summer to come to terms with her past. All along, she’s been telling herself, it was just in your head. But the moment Maggie steps into the foyer of her family home, she knows. The darkness is still here. And it’s been waiting for Maggie’s return.
[There are slight spoilers in this review for things that happen within the first three chapters, and are implied in the blurb for this novella]
I Call Upon Thee was the first read I decided on for my big two months of horror in the lead up to Halloween. There’s so much about this that appeals to me: the flashbacks between the past and the present; the setting; the promise of ‘sweltering heat’; and the allure of what you assume will be not only the haunting of a family, but a house, too.
In horror like this, making the reader believe that the home and family face a genuine threat is key. However, I Call Upon Thee failed at making me feel any kind of threat. There’s a distinct lack of tension, and while it’s scary in places, it’s all surface level fear being created. It’s never frightening. It’s chock full of horror cliches and the pacing of the story is rushed, throwing you straight into what would be scary if the author spent more time developing the scene and setting.
The way passage of time is written is jarring. There are jumps from past to present with no warning, and gaps of several years in some of the intervals that take place in the past. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact ages of characters because of the jumps, and I still have no idea what the age gap between Maggie and Bee, and Arlen and Bee, were.
I like the bookends of major hurricanes, the thematic implications of having those hurricanes be circular in when the trouble began and where it finishes, but in the end, it all felt like heavy handed pathetic fallacy. In the reality of the story, the hurricanes never mattered all that much. What could have been a terrifying backdrop for a horror story instead became something inconsequential. It’s almost like Ahlborn had all these ideas and included them, and then forgot to spend time developing and actually making them matter.
These characters? I couldn’t have cared less, unfortunately. Maggie is belittled and ignored so often I grew bored of her interactions trying to convince others that what was happening was because of a sinister force. Her decent into ‘madness’ wasn’t very well written; The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, handle very similar themes and concepts in a much more direct and stimulating way. Arlen is severely underdeveloped and underutilised, and Bee became the stock goth character to distract from the fact that there wasn’t actually any substance to her character at all. Every character besides Maggie has no personality, really, beyond being background noise or there to frustrate Maggie when they don’t believe her.
On top of all of this, the conversation surrounding suicide and drug addiction wasn’t well done at all. They call their mother and Bee selfish for dying from suicide, and they are constantly demonised for their illnesses and the trauma they suffered, while everyone else around them stood around ignoring their pain. I’d understand if this was intended to present the emotional turmoil of the characters, their regret over not helping when they could have, but a lack of confrontation of these harmful attitudes towards addiction and suicide meant I couldn’t read it any other way than them looking down on those suffering from mental health conditions. If you want a horror novel that actually handles mental health deftly I would recommend A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
The ending is also too open to bring about any satisfaction. I’m a fan of bittersweet and open endings– one of my favourite horror writers since childhood is Darren Shan, who isn’t afraid to present bleak and disheartening conclusions to series intended for teen and young adult readers. I Call Upon Thee just left me in disbelief as there was absolutely no pay off for anything that happens throughout the story. Nothing is resolved, and no character ever goes through any changes. I knew this the moment Maggie made completely self centred decisions regarding Arlen’s children in the final chapters of the novel, and felt drained by the final line, knowing I wasn’t going to get an answer to any of the questions I had.
This kind of hopeless horror clearly isn’t for me. We start and end the book the exact same way, with little to no character development, the plot doing a complete circle instead of providing anything new, and that’s incredibly disappointing. I do not recommend this novella at all, even if it is a quicker read.
Content Warning: descriptions of suicide, descriptions of dead bodies, drowning, drug addiction (prescription medication), death of a parent, child death
If you liked this review, you might like:
🍎Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
🍎Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell
🍎Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
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