Books: The Nightmare Room by Chris Sorensen

Before making his mark as a horror writer, Chris Sorensen was probably best known as an audiobook narrator, having more than 200 audiobooks under his belt. He is also a playwright and a screenwriter who had several of his works produced. So it was no surprise perhaps when he decided to try his hand at a novel, and what a novel it was. 2017’s The Nightmare Room earned loads of praise and ended up on many reviewers’ “best horror of the year” lists. The book also served as the basis for an eventual trilogy called The Messy Man Series (which also included The Hungry Ones from 2019 and The Messy Man from 2020). The book that started it all, The Nightmare Room, is something like a haunted house story, but with weirder beings than ghosts coming out to play.

Sorensen apparently decided to “write what he knew,'” because the main protagonist of The Nightmare Room, Peter Larson, is also an audiobook narrator. Having done some audio narration myself, I was actually quite a big fan of this aspect of the story, as not only did the technical details add some verisimilitude to the tale, but the recordings the protagonist makes also factor into the story somewhat, providing the first inkling that something supernatural is going on.

At the beginning of the story, there’s something of a prologue, in which a little boy with an abusive father is thrown down into the basement after he wakes up screaming from a nightmare and infuriates his father. The boy thinks of this room in the basement as “the nightmare room,” since he always gets locked down there whenever he has a nightmare. He’s terrified, but while there, he begins to develop a sort of relationship with an entity; not a ghost, exactly, though it isn’t clear exactly what it is or what it wants. It’s called Whisper, or sometimes Mr. Tell, and although the entity is scary, it does help the kid deal with the horrors of his household.

Jump ahead to the present day, where we’re following a married couple named Peter and Hannah Larson. Some time in the recent past, the pair have lost their only son Michael to cancer, and have been trying to get their lives back together. They get a call summoning them back to Peter’s small hometown of Maple City, Illinois; turns out that Peter’s father, Big Bear, isn’t doing too well and has had to be moved to a long term care facility (the same facility where Peter’s dementia-stricken mother already resides). Since the lawyer who contacts them implies that Peter has been left his childhood home, and since Peter and Hannah have been wanting to change things up to get their minds off their dead son, they pack their meager belongings into their car and move back to Maple City, figuring they’ll have a place to live and be near Peter’s parents so they can visit them in their dying days.

Problem is, when they get there, they discover there’s been a mix-up. Peter actually didn’t inherit his childhood home at all; that house has been sold to the nearby college in order to pay for Big Bear’s stay at the long term care facility. Peter and Hannah now aren’t quite sure what to do, as they’ve severed all ties to their old life in order to come back here, but then it’s divulged that they’ve actually inherited an old farmhouse Peter’s dad owned, a house Peter didn’t even know existed. The house isn’t in the best shape, but the couple are offered the place for one dollar rent, with an option to buy it later on. Peter is less than enthused, but Hannah falls in love with the place, and is excited about fixing it up and making it their own.

Can I just come in right here and say how much I liked Hannah’s character? She kicked ass. Tough and funny and kind of a heavy metal type chick, she reminded me a bit of a more outgoing Mandy, from the Nicholas Cage movie of the same name. Actually, the couple here reminded me of the couple/family from the movie The Devil’s Candy, which is always a plus because I loved those characters.

Anyway, Peter gets a bit more keen on the farmhouse when he discovers a naturally soundproof room in the basement that seems tailor-made for his audiobook recording studio. Astute readers will immediately twig on to the fact that this is the same “nightmare room” described by the little boy at the beginning of the book.

And no sooner has Peter set up his equipment and started work than the room starts to live up to its name. For example, he’ll be recording something, and won’t hear anything amiss in real time, but when he goes back to listen to the recordings, there’s all these weird glitches and anomalies on there. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s something akin to a haunting going on, tying back to the boy from the beginning of the book.

I really liked the original take on the ghost story/haunted house trope that this book had going on. It’s still a fairly traditional haunted house story, which I love, but there’s enough ambiguity about what Whisper/Mr. Tell is and how he’s connected to Peter to keep the story really interesting. I will say here that the two later books in the trilogy (which I have read and will review) take the mythology in all sorts of surprising directions, but you can totally read this book as a standalone and not feel like you aren’t getting the whole story.

I also loved the characters of Peter and Hannah and their interactions with one another; they seemed like real people, and were easy to like and root for. The bartender at the tavern where Hannah works is also a delightful character, and the three of them made for really winning and entertaining protagonists.

I also really enjoyed the sort of subversion of the trope that happens a lot in haunted house stories; you know the one, where one of the family members sees some supernatural shit, nobody believes them, and it causes all these rifts and conflicts. While we do get a bit of that—Peter starts experiencing the phenomena first and doesn’t tell Hannah, feeling like it would overburden her—it doesn’t actually pull the couple apart. It ends up bringing them closer together, making their relationship stronger, which actually made me want to root for the characters all the more.

In sum, this was a great, fast-paced read that sucked you in immediately and didn’t let go. Seriously, I sat down to read it, only intending to read a few chapters, and I ended up reading almost the whole book in one sitting, because I was so invested in what was going on. If you love haunted house stories as much as I do but want to read something that’s a bit of a different take on it, while still retaining the stuff you love about the subgenre, then by all means check it out.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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