Man, have I mentioned how much I love it when I pick a book completely at random on Kindle Unlimited and it ends up being one of the best things I’ve read all year? If I haven’t, then I’m mentioning it now; my little horror heart is heaving with happiness. I happened to choose this particular book from my recommendations, incidentally, for only three simple reasons: the cover is gorgeous, the title is intriguing, and I saw a little blurb that it had won The Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Novella of 2020.
Writer Mona Kabbani is a young Lebanese immigrant living in New York City, and though she’s written a couple of novels since, 2020’s The Bell Chime was her first published work, and that fact blows my fucking mind, because the novella is so self-assured, so beautifully written, and so terrifying that I can hardly believe it was produced by a first-time author.
I would actually suggest going into this story completely blind, as I did; all you need to know is that it’s a psychological horror that uses night terrors as a jumping off point, and that it’s not told in a linear fashion, but is nonetheless pretty easy to follow and also very easy to get completely absorbed in. If you continue reading past this sentence, some plot points may be revealed that you don’t want to know, so beware; I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I am going to discuss some aspects of the story as a whole. Onward.
I don’t know if I’d actually go so far as to call the book meta, but it does begin with the author herself describing her experiences with night terrors, and how a psychologist told her to set an alarm for the middle of the night, so that when she wakes up from the terrors, she can write them down, and thus take away their power. This, she writes, is where the germ of the idea for The Bell Chime came from: one of these night terrors that she wrote down, and she actually describes it exactly in the afterword.
When we get into the story proper, we’re following an initially unnamed woman, who has woken up encased in some kind of bag, which is lying on a cold metal table. There’s someone hovering over her, asking repeatedly if she can hear the bell chime. When she says she can, she is suddenly subjected to excruciating pain.
Then she wakes up from what was presumably a nightmare. She is in her apartment in Manhattan, and her concerned boyfriend Dexter is comforting her. We learn that the protagonist is a successful novelist with a seemingly perfect boyfriend, but that she’s often plagued by these terrible nightmares, and maybe is a bit mentally fragile because of some unspoken issues in her past.
It’s Sunday morning, and Dexter is making breakfast, but they’re out of bacon, so the protagonist (whose name we don’t learn until later, but is actually Lauren, so that’s what I’ll call her) says she’ll pop down to the little grocery store across the street to get some. On her way out of the building, though, she spots a flyer that someone has posted on the window glass of the door out to the street. It’s a missing persons flyer, but the photo on it is of her. Well, not quite: it is her, but she looks insane in the photo, demonic; and what’s more, she’s certain she never posed for that picture, and that she wouldn’t be able to make her face look like that even if she tried.
Freaked out and furious, she takes the flyer back into the apartment and shows Dexter. He doesn’t take it all that seriously, though he comes up with the somewhat reasonable explanation that a weird fan (or hater) of hers might have put it there as a prank. Lauren is mollified somewhat, but still unnerved by the fact that she knows she never posed for that picture.
She also starts to suspect that her delicate hold on sanity might be crumbling once again, and this suspicion is heightened by the fact that she’s sure the eyes of the photo are moving and following her around. She also throws the flyer away at one point, but it somehow returns, and what’s worse, another one appears where the photo of her looks horribly, unutterably sad.
From there, Lauren begins to hear the bell chime invading her waking life, and starts to see even more terrible things that may or may not be hallucinations. At about a quarter of the way through the story, Lauren wakes up inside the bag and on the metal table from her dream, and the actual truth of her situation starts to become much clearer.
As I mentioned, The Bell Chime jumps back and forth in the timeline and skates between reality and nightmares, but it remains completely lucid and simple to follow the entire time. New information is revealed with every section and every journey into the past and into the dream world, and it all comes together seamlessly. I’ve seen the story compared to something you’d see on Black Mirror, and that’s a fair comparison, though it’s set in the present day and doesn’t really have any science fiction trappings or particular focus on technology. This is purely psychological horror at its very finest and most real; you can tell just by reading it that the author has experienced many of the frightening emotions and visions she describes, even if only in dreams.
The overarching theme of the story, succinctly summed up in the book’s last sentence, is, “What would you abandon for happiness?” It’s a question you’ll probably be asking yourself for quite a while after you’ve finished with The Bell Chime; this is definitely going to be one of those stories that sticks with you and haunts your thoughts from time to time. The imagery the author is able to conjure through her use of language is vivid and all-encompassing, and the way she conveys mood and emotion is incredible. Mona Kabbani is undoubtedly going to be a writer to watch in coming years, and I’m actually really excited to read more of her stuff, because this was just exquisite.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.