My first encounter with the work of Mary SanGiovanni was her dark and elegant chapbook No Songs for the Stars, and it left me intrigued and interested in reading more. Fortunately, I had a short vacation to Mexico a few weeks ago and it was a perfect opportunity to sit on the beach and do nothing but read. During the trip, I was able to read quite a few books, in fact, and among them were two of SanGiovanni’s more recent novels, Thrall (2013) and Chaos (2014).
Both books are best categorized as supernatural or unnatural horror, though they are quite different in their plots and overall pacing. Both are compelling reads, and I found it difficult to put either of them down.
Since I read them back to back anyway, I thought I would blog about them together!
Let’s start with the earlier novel, Thrall (2013).
Seven years ago, Jesse Coaglan left his birth home, the small rural New Jersey town of Thrall, isolated from the rest of the world by . He is still haunted by the rapid decline the town underwent just before he fled — mysterious disappearances, a hole that opened in the grocery store, swallowing up several shoppers, a river of what appeared to be blood flooding down Main Street, and an overall malaise that seemed to drain the very vitality of the inhabitants. Worst of all, though, was the Raw: a dense, sickly pink fog that would descend without warning and envelop the town. And sometimes consume someone within it.
After years of therapy, Jesse has no plans to return to Thrall, until he receives a voicemail from his old love Mia, begging him to come back to town to find her and the daughter that he did not know he had. With his good friend Nadia, Jesse returns to Thrall, finding a town seemingly abandoned and under siege from unnatural things lurking in the Raw. The pair quickly find themselves stranded in the town, as earthshaking changes herald the culmination of a monstrous destiny.
Thrall is a fast-paced novel, and might be called a mixture of action and horror. The shit hits the fan right away, and the characters find themselves fighting for their lives for almost the entire story. This does not diminish the horror of the tale at all, however; the town of Thrall is filled with enough mystery and history to keep the reader guessing and unnerved.
The big payoff, however, is the central conceit of the entire novel. The town of Thrall has a secret, and it is one of those ideas that is so clever that it stuck in my mind for days afterward. I don’t want to give it away, so let me just say that it is an idea that is analogous to a dream: elegant, powerful, and one that makes perfect sense as long as you accept a dreamer’s sort of logic.
SanGiovanni’s more recent novel Chaos (2014) has a quite different tone and pacing. Decades ago, the Bridgewood Asylum was the scene of a horrible massacre, as patients and staff alike participated in a bloody orgy of death and mutilation that led to its closure and abandonment. Now, most of the site has been replaced with luxury apartments — Bridgewood Estates — and the first tenants have begun to move in. Among them are Derek and Myrinda, who are starting a new life together in the clean, modern complex.
Though most of the apartments are still without occupants, the complex is far from uninhabited. In the last remaining building of the old asylum, a gateway to a dimension of chaos remains open. Monstrous beings are slipping into our world, sowing insanity among the tenants. Derek, Myrinda, and the others start to experience strange visions, leading to increasingly bizarre and violent action. In the end, will anyone escape from Bridgewood with their sanity or lives intact?
Compared to Thrall, Chaos is a slow-burn story. Though the existence of the chaotic ones is introduced right at the beginning of the novel, their influence on the Bridgewood residents is slow and insidious. Much of the tension is waiting to see exactly how they will exploit people’s weaknesses. If that sounds tame, it isn’t: two scenes in particular, featuring a police detective, are some of the most shocking things you’ll ever read. I pretty much held the book at arm’s length while reading these ghastly descriptions.
Overall, I would interpret the theme of the book as exploring how people’s obsessions can destroy them — whether those obsessions be a job, or a relationship, or a project. Each character has his or her own cares and interests, and each of them is attacked in a different way.
Chaos did not grab me quite as strongly as Thrall did, but both are excellently written, well-characterized tales of horror.
Chaos has one little typo worth mentioning that can confuse the heck out of you if you’re reading carefully. In the introductory chapter set in the asylum, we have the statement,
Mrs. Rossi had been committed for exhaustion, as she told it, in 1993.
However, in the very next chapter we have,
She knew the asylum had something of a sordid history. Internet and library research yielded that Bridgehaven Asylum had been closed since the mid-eighties…
Clearly, the “1993” in the first quote is supposed to be “1983!”
I look forward to reading more of Mary SanGiovanni’s work in the future. I can recommend both Chaos and Thrall, but Thrall particularly stands out to me for its very original central idea.