There’s the grief hole you fall into when a loved one dies.
There’s another grief hole in all of us; small or large, it determines how much we want to live.
And there are the places, the physical grief holes, which attract suicides to their centre.
Sol Evictus, a powerful, charismatic singer, sends a young artist into The Grief Hole to capture the faces of the teenagers dying there. When she inevitably dies herself, her cousin Theresa resolves to stop this man so many love.
Theresa sees ghosts; she knows how you’ll die by the spirits haunting you. If you’ll drown, she’ll see drowned people. Most often she sees battered women, because she works to find emergency housing for abused women.
She sees no ghosts around Sol Evictus but she doesn’t let that stop her. Her passion to help, to be a saint, drives her to find a way to destroy him.
Kaaron Warren’s writing is wonderful. I always enjoy her short fiction and the one novel of hers I read, Mistification, was absolutely amazing. Warren always manages to create complexly layered, strangely weird stories that are genuinely creepy, and utterly compelling. Her latest novel The Grief Hole, out from IGFW Publishing last week, is no different. It’s an intense story looking at grief in all forms, featuring a heroine who is at once sympathetic and somewhat off-putting.
At times it felt as if the novel itself couldn’t make up its mind about Theresa. While she is introduced as an inveterate do-gooder, mockingly named Saint Theresa by friends and family alike, at points in the narrative she is also shown to derive a certain twisted pleasure from working with the battered women she encounters as a social worker. She gains validation and the self-satisfaction of knowing herself to be a “good” person, especially in cases where she “intervenes”. She has built her identity by being a helper—if she can’t help, she’s lost. In a way, Theresa is as much an emotional parasite as Sol Evictus is; they both need others’ despair to function. Theresa wrestles with the knowledge of this and tries to stay on the right side of the line, because she is a good person and wants to do the best she can. Her arc in the novel isn’t as much about her grief as it is about finding the balance between her desire to help, her gift of seeing ghosts, and the ruthless side of her nature that allows her to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals—the side that her Aunt Prudence calls her monster.
Theresa’s gift is that she sees ghosts. Specifically, she sees the way a person will die; the clearer the ghosts, the closer the death. She feels a responsibility to her charges to sometimes intervene and save them from their faith, by making sure that the cause of their death, usually their spouse, is removed. However, things aren’t always as straightforward as they seem and everything ends badly. Theresa isn’t the only one in her family to have a gift. In fact, her mother’s side of the family is rife with gifted people. The one exception in the novel being her Uncle Scott, who confesses envy of his sister’s gift and his lack places him outside the family. It did make me wonder whether Amber did inherit a gift and whether this was in part what determined her fate. The gifts are an additional complication to a complicated family history that sheds light on different ways of grieving: Scott and Courtney’s drinking, Theresa’s emotional locking away of herself, Lynda’s constant hostility, and Prudence’s whatever it is. These are all ways of trying to cope with a shattering loss, of trying to ignore the pain, and perhaps not-so-coincidentally preventing themselves from moving on.
Interestingly, there is also a lot of caregiver’s resentment in the book, both from the professionals, like Theresa and her co-worker Raul, and from family members, such as Annie’s mother. Being patient and kind is hard and can be wearying, especially when it feels as if the person being cared for doesn’t ‘listen’. It’s the frustration of seeing someone going back to a bad place, despite knowing it is the wrong thing to do, and the knowledge that they’ll be the ones having to pick up the pieces when it goes wrong, again. There is resentment all around really in The Grief Hole, as we also see Annie being hurt that Scott and Courtney shut her out, and they in their turn are mad at Annie and the rest of Amber’s friends and their parents for staying away. Theresa is angry at her mother for being spiteful and mean and at Tim for being needy and, in her eyes, weak. Despite the emphasis placed by the characters on the importance of being kind and empathetic, most of them have a really hard time with actually being kind and empathetic.
Grief can be expressed in many, many ways— anger, resentment, guilt, despair, depression, resignation, and acceptance. And all of these are reflected in The Grief Hole. The horror in this book is purely psychological, despite Sol Evictus collecting gruesome art and some splatter passages. It is an insidious form of horror, one that gets under your skin and stays with you, leaving you unsettled and wondering why. I was absolutely captivated by The Grief Hole, drawn in until the last page. Kaaron Warren is a fantastic writer, one who should be read by anyone who enjoys horror or the weirdly fantastic.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.