While I’ve never attempted it, I suspect that writing a horror novel is one of the trickiest literary feats one can undertake. There’s so much in horror’s sensory nature that lends itself to the screen: the visual impact of the grotesque, the reliable punch of the jump-scare, the interplay of sight and sound that disorients or disturbs the viewer into a lingering sense of unease. It’s hard enough to do well on film; in book form, meanwhile, the horror author is left with only words with which to build dark, unsettling worlds.
Thankfully, building a dark world with words is something Luke T. Harrington, author of Ophelia Alive, clearly knows how to do well. Harrington’s debut novel tells the story of Ophelia, a fifth-year college student who, down on her luck and desperate for cash, takes a “job” testing weight loss pills for her ambitious mortician sister. At first, all goes well—that is, until she starts finding dead bodies everywhere. And she starts blacking out. And she can’t remember where she’s been during the night . . .Despite the blood and grime, Ophelia Alive is probably best approached less as a horror novel and more as a philosophical thriller. As most of our members know, Harrington cut his teeth as a humor writer, contributing to websites like Cracked, Buzzfeed, Christianity Today, and, of course, our own—and even though Ophelia Alive is a horror novel, his wit’s on full display here. Ophelia is a wry-minded protagonist with a biting sense of cynicism and self-deprecation; as the world around her deteriorates, she responds with a mixture of adolescent misanthropy (backed up with a fifth-year English major’s facility in shaping verbal barbs) and genuine, humanizing, insecure apprehension and terror. She’s relatable, sure, but she’s no uncomplicated hero, and Harrington strikes a perfect balance between soliciting the reader’s sympathy for her while also raising increasing doubts about her reliability.
Harrington’s prose, too, manages to thread quite a few needles, moving seamlessly between traditional narrative and stream-of-consciousness passages even as it leaps from high literary heights down to gut-churning descriptions of bloated and decaying corpses. Shifts in tone can come unexpectedly, but always to good effect, jarring the reader even as the events enfolding her jar Ophelia from her grim musing. Of course, we expect that of our horror writers—disgust and shock are among their stock and trade. But Harrington also showcases his versatility with lyrical passages that pull readers up out of the muck and mire before they’re plunged back in. There’s plenty of beauty to marvel at here, even amongst the viscera.
In fact, despite the blood and grime, Ophelia Alive is probably best approached less as a horror novel and more as a philosophical thriller. In a recent article for Arc, Harrington recalls realizing early on that his story would be wading into waters he’d not set out to fathom:
The true terror of the psychological thriller genre comes from prodding the reader into questioning the very nature of reality, and there’s no way to do that honestly without brushing up against profound philosophical questions about consciousness, morality, God, and the self. Whether I wanted to or not, I had to dive deep — and maybe look at questions I might not have considered as carefully before. . . . Like Spielberg when he started filming Jaws, I thought I’d just be creating a quick blood-and-gore-fest full of cheap, easy thrills—and like Spielberg, I accidentally made something a bit more cerebral, almost entirely out of necessity.
If you’re like me, that sounds like a recipe for a hauntingly good read. And hey—Halloween’s right around the corner. What better time than mid-October to draw the curtains, turn down the lights, and settle into your chair for a bone-chilling, blood-curdling few hours of homegrown horror?
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