Within These Walls
Review by: Mark Palm
Just about the best praise that you find on a cover of any novel is that it kept the reader up all night. This holds particularly true for horror novels. I have a new one. I am reviewing Within These Walls, by Ania Ahlborn, because my wife stopped after reading just under 30% of the book. It scared her so much that one night she slept on the couch with all of the lights on watching “happy” movies on Netflix. I took over after that, and while my fear never got to me that much, I can genuinely say that Ms. Ahlborn’s novel definitely gave several serious cases of the chills.
Lucas Graham is a washed-up true-crime writer whose wife is ready to leave him, and is desperate to reclaim the success that made him a bestselling author. He gets a chance when death-row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, a notorious cult-leader and mass murderer writes him a letter. Halcomb hasn’t spoken a word to the media for decades, but he offers Lucas access, on the condition that the author live and work in the house where the crime occurred. His wife has a business convention, so Lucas must take his teenaged daughter Virginia with him.
Running parallel with this is the past story of Audra Snow, a daughter of a congressman, who is clinically depressed and living a life of quiet desperation alone in a huge house on the Washington coast. Her friend Anita drags her out of her house, and together the two meet Halcomb, and some of his followers, camping on the beach. Slowly the charismatic leaders and his followers worm their way into Audra’s life, and her home. Halcomb and his followers slowly brain-wash and brutalize Audra into capitulation. This tale unfurls toward is sad and inevitable finale interspersed with transcriptions of official documents, reports, and interviews.
I won’t reveal any more, but as I said, Ms. Ahlborn has a deft touch with horror. She dosen’t club you over the head; she prefers a stiletto. This is a dark and disturbing story filled with a genuine sense of unease, and it works wonders as a novel of horror. I do think that anyone reading this book should know that it is unremittingly bleak. There is hardly a ray of light or a shred of hope to be seen. A lot of terrible, tragic events take place, and a lot of innocent people have their lives ruined or ended, in very bad ways. Also some of the plots twists and turns surprised me, while others were more obvious.
I don’t like to compare one novel to another, but this book holds a place in my reading list alongside Pet Sematary by Stephen King, and The Devil All The Time, not a supernatural novel, but almost certainly one of horror, by Donald Ray Pollock as books I admire, but recommend with a few reservations. This is powerful stuff, not for the faint of heart. That is part of what made it work for me. Ms. Ahlborn tells her tale, with guts and skill, and she doesn't stray from her convictions or pull her punches one bit. Within These Walls is a shocking, scary read, and I bet that that’s just what Ms. Ahlborn intended.