I discovered horror writer A. R. Wise when I read the first book in the 314 trilogy. It was a free book on BookBub, and as I love horror, I thought I would give it a try. I was quickly hooked by the unusual narrative structure, the relatable characters, and the dreams. I love stories about dreams.
His most recent novel, Shudder Inn, takes place in the same universe as the 314 trilogy, and also deals with the nature of dreams. Like his other books, he draws you in with an intriguing premise, but keeps you reading because of the multi layered plot and the characters. As someone who loves puzzles, A.R. Wise’s novels are a real treat, and Shudder Inn does not disappoint.
Isabella Rothchild, known as Izzy, is a troubled teenager, living with her mentally ill older sister, Ash, and their mother, Amy. Izzy is thin to the point of anorexic, a condition she doesn’t have, and is rather reserved. She loves to express herself in her artwork, be that on paper, crafting sculpture or in her beautifully decorated haven of a bedroom, which she refers to as Mother.
However, Izzy has a secret that sets her apart from other people. She is a lucid. She can enter other people’s dreams and help mould their dreamscape to give them one last perfect day with a lost loved one. Izzy helps Amy pay the bills by creating dreams for clients, but the work takes a toll on her and leaves her subject to terrible nightmares, until she begins to struggle to identify whether she is in the dream or the waking world.
A. R. Wise puts forward a wonderful what if? in this novel. What if you could give someone the perfect day with a lost loved one? How much would you pay to see a parent, or child, who had passed on? To hold them again, to talk to them, to do the silly meaningless things that make up our lives and mean the world once you can no longer do them? If you know loss, I bet your answer would be a lot.
Shudder Inn provides the answer to such a what if? in the character of Isabella Rothchild. It is an intimate character portrait of a reserved, creative young woman who is haunted by the work she does with her clients. Giving people their perfect day certainly comes at a high price for Izzy.
The novel wanders in a dreamlike way through a succession of scenes that become increasingly fragmented, documenting Izzy’s daily life, her relationship with her family, the people at school and her clients. It explores the nature of dreams and reality, how we trust our perceptions, or don’t, and how incredibly powerful dreams are in their ability to help us deal with, and hopefully overcome, trauma.
There is a subplot that involves an urban legend of a serial killer, called Red Reed, who may or may not be active once more in Izzy’s home town of Cricket Hill. This plot line seemed somewhat forced at times, and while, after finishing the book, I could truly appreciate Red Reed’s role in the novel, I found the parts of the book devoted to him to be less interesting than when the focus was on Izzy.
Fans of A.R. Wise will know not everything is as it seems, and careful reading will provide clues that will keep you guessing about what is really going on until the end.
I like A.R. Wise’s work a lot. I enjoy the depth he brings to his writing, the compassion with which he portrays his characters, and the meaning he imbues into every little detail. For someone who reads meaning into every stray word, and is usually disappointed when there is no deeper message, A.R. Wise’s work is a treasure trove. However, I felt that the horror element was somewhat shoehorned in to what was really a dark fantasy about loss and the character of Izzy, and if you are looking for something with the same gut punch as 314, or, God forbid, Daughter of Bathory, you will be disappointed. Shudder Inn is delicate and precious, like a last lingering dream of a loved one, and it should be cherished for that.
An issue with the ending (no spoilers) stops me from giving Shudder Inn my highest award of five out of five dogs. However, there is an appendix to the book in which the author writes about Izzy guiding real people through the dreams they would like to experience. This is almost worth the price of the book alone, and some of the stories had me in tears. It made me see the importance of dreams to people, and the kindness of the author in the way he crafted stories of such incredible beauty to deal with his fans real life pain and sorrow. Because of this, I give Shudder Inn four out of five dogs.