Rare (I suppose) is the horror novel that uses Kabbalah as its jumping-off point. Rarer still, these days, at least, is a novel in which cell phones are only minimally present, and in which the characters visit an Internet cafe. First published in 2006, though, Alexandra Sokoloff’s The Harrowing (A Ghost Story) exists in that interstitial period between the advent of the Internet and its omnipresence via smart phones and wireless networks. And guess what? Those anachronisms work in The Harrowing‘s favor. It’s like The Breakfast Club with mysticism and bloodshed.
Welcome to Baird College, a liberal arts institution ambiguously located in the Northeast. Whatever state Baird is located in, the locals must own slickers and rain boots, because it rains all the time. Sokoloff must have glommed onto the notion that rain is creepy, because it only ceases to rain for a few pages throughout the book, and, even then, the weather remains dank and dreary. What’s the suicide rate at Baird? Riddle me that, admissions office. If we go by the feelings of our main character, Robin Stone, we might assume that Baird isn’t doing well maintaining its students’ mental health. As Thanksgiving break nears, Robin, dejected, socially isolated, and suicidal, readies herself to spend the holiday alone. In her big ol’ creepy dorm. Great idea, Robin.
Fortunately, for both Robin and the story, her attempt at suicide is interrupted when she realizes that several other students remain behind: Patrick, the footballer on whom she has a crush; Lisa, the “vamp”; Cain (seriously?), the nihilistic rocker-cum-prelaw student; and Martin, the atheist only-son of an Orthodox rabbi. At this point, the most unbelievable aspect of the story is that a rabbi might name his son “Martin.” All five students are in their own ways damaged, and, in their brokenness, they can relate to one another. It is perhaps unsurprising that they decide to spend the dark and stormy night before Thanksgiving playing with a Ouija board, making (possible) contact with a spirit calling itself Zachary who seems to know an awful lot about the five of them, and who exhibits a mean anti-Semitic streak. (Fun fact: The Hebrew root from which “Zachary” is derived–zakor–means “remember.”) At this point, readers with a passing familiarity to what Martin derisively refers to as “Madonna’s Kabbalah” will have a sense where this is headed: The rabbi’s son; the red bracelet on Lisa’s wrist (a ward against evil); Zachary’s references to “shells” and “discarded ones” all point to Kabbalah. (I’m not really giving anything away here.) It goes without saying that things take a nasty turn as the weekend progresses, and that things aren’t what they appear.
Sokoloff is at her strongest when it comes to establishing setting and atmosphere. She describes Baird’s campus as being “unmarred by the slightest sight of civilization”; indeed, “the isolation seemed ominous.” Likewise, the lecture Robin attends immediately prior to the holiday break is “soporific, strangely hypnotic.” Solitude and altered states of consciousness within just the first few pages. Approaching her dorm, Robin “never noticed how the high windows near the top of the balcony looked like watching eyes.” Okay, we get it; you’re laying it on a bit thick, now. “And the double doors, flicking, serpentine tongues, tasting the scent of its prey as it neared its gaping maw.” Nope, I made that last one up.
Robin and her fellow characters are recognizable and relatable, if shallowly drawn. Sokoloff tells the story from Robin’s perspective. Despite her initial emotional problems, Robin seems remarkably resilient; indeed, contact with the others, and with Zachary, seems to provide her energy and strength. Intuitive readers will immediately guess the relational outcomes of the characters, though. Populated by college students, it’s inevitable that the characters become involved with one another. Even the powers of the beyond (spooky voice) can’t interfere with raging hormones! (Indeed, it seems to feed upon them, raising, for this reader, at least, the question of why horror is the most conservative of all genre fiction.)
Sokoloff began her career as a screenwriter, a background that informs the structure of The Harrowing. The novel is clearly divided into three sections: The beginning consists of Thanksgiving weekend; the bridge, the return to “normality” and Robin’s subsequent investigation into Zachary’s identity; and, finally, the action-packed conclusion, in which all pretense at thoughtfulness is cast aside. It goes without saying that the third act is the weakest.
Ultimately, The Harrowing is a bit of a missed opportunity. Sokoloff maintains ambiguity throughout the first third of the novel, hinting that the “seance” held over the Ouija board may be supernatural in origin without quite saying it. While Cain suspects trickery, Martin is fascinated by the possibility that the events are precipitated by some kind of hitherto unknown psychological phenomena. All of the students are experiencing extreme emotional stress, and Sokoloff suggests that there are rational explanations for what’s going on, all of which appeals to the possibility that horror is found in ambiguity rather than certainty. Unfortunately, Sokoloff errs on the side of the latter: She takes the safe path, and, thus, abandons any attempt at depth or thoughtfulness.
The Harrowing is an engaging and emotionally satisfying “horror” story, and, refreshingly, a tale more concerned with mood and atmosphere than with bloodshed and gore. Although The Harrowing lacks depth, it is well told, and uses Kabbalah to introduce a novel element into the story’s background. Reminiscent (in some ways) of The Secret History, The Harrowing is best recommended to fans of ghost stories and dark, emotionally-intense tales of mystery and deceit.
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To see another taken on Jewish lore, consider Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses.
For a different take on the supernatural in horror, see Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters.