When I was first thinking about doing this book review series, my main goal was getting back into reading horror fiction. I used to read a lot of it, and then for the past several years, I had gotten far more into nonfiction, just because most of the time that seemed more interesting when I was browsing for books. Consequently, I got really behind on a lot of the newer horror authors, which made me feel sort of bad, being a horror writer myself. So I really wanted to use this series as an excuse to dip my feet back into the pool, and try to get a feel of what was out there these days, as well as catch up on some of the fiction I missed out on over the past decade or so.
As most of you well know, the advent of self-publishing has caused a massive explosion in content of all kinds; a lot of it is admittedly terrible, but a surprising amount of it is pretty damn awesome too. Because I didn’t have a lot of time to wade through thousands and thousands of books, looking for good ones to read without wasting time and brain cells with the awful ones, I turned to YouTube book reviewers, Goodreads reviews, and other online lists and recommendations to make my own core list of books I wanted to read and review, books that sounded the most intriguing to me.
As I was doing this, I began to notice that a lot of the same books and authors were turning up again and again, which is honestly what I hoped would happen, as it would winnow down my possible selections. One of the authors that kept reappearing was Ania Ahlborn; hence how I was introduced to her work.
I didn’t know a great deal about the author herself, though I did a cursory glance at her background before diving in. She was reportedly born in Poland, and now lives in South Carolina. Her first book, Seed, was self-published, and ended up becoming the best-selling horror novel on Amazon for a time, which drew the attention of the major publisher Simon & Schuster. She has since gone on to become one of the best-known horror authors out there.
Now, because I was starting fresh and hadn’t read any of her work before, I wasn’t entirely sure where to start. I am going to say, just as an aside, that in general, I prefer to have physical copies of the books I read and review. But in this case, I noticed that the ebook version of one of Ania Ahlborn’s novels, If You See Her, was available to read for free with my Kindle Unlimited subscription, so I decided that would be an ideal book to begin with, as I wouldn’t have to lay out any cash before I knew if I liked her work or not.
If You See Her was released in 2019, and though I mentioned earlier that Ahlborn had a contract with Simon & Schuster, it seems that this particular book was published independently. In her notes in the back of the book, the author writes that she started work on this novel and then had a baby, so it took her much longer to finish than she had anticipated, understandably. This seems to have been one of the reasons she decided to put the book out on her own.
The story of If You See Her follows a guy named Jesse Wells, who lives in a little nowhere town called Warsaw, Michigan. Jesse wants to be a writer, and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say he thinks he’s smarter than anybody else in town, he does have much larger ambitions than the other residents, and wants to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
The story starts in the year 2000 or 2001, when Jesse and his two friends Casey and Reed are getting ready to graduate from high school. Warsaw boasts the requisite creepy old house that’s situated out beyond the edges of the town, which has a reputation of being haunted, as well as a history of suicides and murders.
Shortly before graduation, the three friends decide to have a few drinks and drive out to the haunted house, just to kind of hang out, as teenagers in small towns are wont to do. Now, it should be mentioned that Jesse had a bad experience at the house when he was eleven years old, an experience he has never shared with his friends. But independently of that, his friend Reed has developed this strange obsession with the house; he thinks and talks about it constantly, and often he drives out to it and just sits in his car, staring at it. So this particular night, it was his idea to go out to the house, and Jesse is really unhappy about it.
Reed and Casey actually want to go inside and explore the place; Reed because of the aforementioned obsession, and Casey because he’s interested in photography and abandoned places. Jesse, however, chickens out and decides to stay outside. While inside the haunted house, Reed wanders up to the fourth floor, and either deliberately jumps or accidentally falls to his death.
After this event, the story jumps ahead to 2019, and Jesse and Casey are now two decades older. Jesse, sadly, has been unable to realize his dream of getting out of town and becoming the next Stephen King; he’s still stuck in Warsaw, working as an English teacher in the same high school he graduated from all those years ago. The bright spot in his life is his family: he married his high school sweetheart, and the couple have a son.
Casey, though, is doing considerably worse. Although many years have passed, he seems to have recently become obsessed with the haunted house at the edge of town just like their dead friend Reed was, and keeps showing up at Jesse’s house, acting bizarrely and trying to convince him that they need to go back to the house in order to get “closure.” Naturally, Jesse is reluctant to do this at first, but eventually ends up succumbing to the spell of the house, much to the detriment of his family and his sanity.
This was an interesting read for me. I read it fairly quickly, over the course of two days, and it was one of those situations where I would be reading it, saying to myself, “Hey, this is pretty good,” but not absolutely gripped into finishing it. But then I found that when I wasn’t reading it, my mind kept wandering back to it, wondering what was going to happen next. Ania Ahlborn does have a very effective way of getting you involved and invested in the story right away, and provides compelling enough characters and plot beats to keep the story moving along. It’s a very easy read.
It also reminded me—and this was the first book of hers that I read, so I’m not sure if her other ones are like this—of low-key Stephen King, and the main character of If You See Her in particular, Jesse Wells, gave me a strong Jack Torrance vibe (the book version, not the Jack Nicholson version). There are many parallels: both characters were aspiring writers who perceived themselves as failures and were working as teachers; both had dealt with alcoholism in the past, and were struggling to stay sober; both became consumed by their personal demons and began sliding into madness due to the influence of a haunted house.
Jesse in If You See Her begins having visions of a little girl that apparently has something to do with the house’s history, and he subsequently starts developing a fixation on the house, and on writing about what might have happened there. He’s also tormented, because he isn’t entirely sure if these visions pertain to anything real, or if he is simply losing his mind. And, much like Jack Torrance, his spiraling descent comes with a side order of self-destruction and uncontrolled rage, where he begins to lash out at his family.
I don’t want to oversell the Stephen King comparisons too much, because this novel is very much its own thing. It is much less sprawling than many of King’s works, for example; it’s a fairly intimate story, focused around a small number of characters, and largely centering around Jesse and what’s going on in his head. I did note that one common criticism I saw of this novel was that the character of Jesse was unlikeable and difficult to root for, but I didn’t find that to be the case, and in fact, had little trouble relating to him. He was a frustrating character for sure, but he was meant to be. Yes, there were times in the book where he should have asked for help or told his wife and friends what was going on rather than keeping everything to himself, but I found that attitude to be absolutely in keeping with his personality type, where he felt as though he was a failure and a burden on others, so for me it totally tracked.
There is also a slight Exorcist angle to the story as well, in terms of having a demon possession type thing going on, so this is basically a haunted house novel with possession elements. It isn’t a super original premise, obviously, but it’s very well-executed, and has a nice buildup of creeping dread and mystery throughout. It isn’t overtly gory or based around big action set-pieces; it’s very much a character-based tale.
I also admired the willingness of the author to go for a relatively bleak ending, particularly in the case of this story, where I felt that the mythology as presented would definitely be too much for a person to correct or defeat. From what I’ve read of her other works, it does seem that Ahlborn does like a bleak ending, and I’m on board with that if it vibes with the rest of the story. I’m not one of those people who thinks that horror stories should always feature the defeat of the monster at the end; sometimes the evil is just too much for us to win against, and a lot of times, that makes the story scarier to me.
Now, just some nitpicking. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty anal-retentive when it comes to grammar. Because this book was self-published, I’m not sure if an outside editor looked it over. To a large extent, it’s fine; a few typos here and there, no big deal. But one thing that bothered me that likely wasn’t a typo because it occurred several times in the text was the very odd error of saying that someone or something “had lied” when she meant “had lain” or similar (for example, “where the body had lied” instead of “where the body lay” or “where the body had lain”). It really threw me out of the story because it was so bizarre, and it happened at least three or four times, even though the rest of the grammar was perfectly cromulent.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a great deal, and will definitely be reading some of Ahlborn’s other books in the future. Other than a few minor issues, I felt this was a fast-paced, engrossing story with fleshed-out and sympathetic characters and a compelling narrative style. If you’re looking for a haunted house tale with added demon-possession elements, then definitely give it a read.