Books: Twelve Nights at Rotter House by J.W. Ocker

The haunted house subgenre, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is usually my favorite type of horror to read, and although I love a good classic haunted house tale, I also like when an author tries to do something of a fresh take on it. J.W. Ocker’s 2019 novel Twelve Nights at Rotter House is one of those attempts, and it’s honestly a pretty successful one. The book is a fun, entertaining ride with an overtly self-referential feel, although the twist ending seems to be a pretty divisive aspect of the story with readers, so bear in mind that the ending may or may not ruin the rest of the book for you, depending on how you feel about it.

J.W. Ocker is actually more known for his nonfiction, and contributing to the meta nature of this novel is the fact that Ocker essentially does exactly what the protagonist of the novel does: he goes to supposedly haunted locations, and writes sort of travel-style guides about them.

In Twelve Nights at Rotter House, our main character is a paranormal travel writer by the name of Felix Allsey. He’s been able to make a few bucks at his chosen profession, but is searching for a project that will really blow the doors off, and finally make his name and his fortune. He feels bad that his wife Elsa has been shouldering most of the financial burden for the couple.

He finally hits upon something he thinks will make a fantastic book. Not far from where he lives, there’s a supposedly haunted house called Rotterdam Mansion that despite its sordid history of murders, suicides, being used as a serial killer’s hideout, and any number of other things, seems to fly under most people’s radars. Felix can’t really fathom why the place is so obscure in paranormal circles, especially since the man who built it was a creepy pervert who had a whole harem of women up in there and even used the house as a sort of fucked-up brothel for a while. Every single room in the mansion was the site of some atrocity or other, so of course locals and others in the know started referring to it as Rotter House.

The mansion is in kinda rough shape, but the woman who owns it is planning to fix it up and open it as a bed and breakfast, or perhaps a haunted attraction. Felix reaches out to her and asks if he can have access to the place for a little while before she begins the renovations, and although she’s reluctant at first, she eventually gives in.

Felix’s idea is fairly simple: he’s going to use the house as a sort of immersion tank. He plans to live in the house for thirteen days and not leave, and after the first night he’s also going to eschew all cell phone and internet use. All he’s going to take with him is a box of printed info about the house’s history, two weeks’ worth of food, camping gear, and some ghost hunting paraphernalia to use in service of stirring up the spirits.

Felix, it should be mentioned, is a hardened skeptic who absolutely does not believe that the house is truly haunted, but makes his living writing about hauntings anyway. In that sense, he’s very similar to the protagonist of the Stephen King story “1408.” And remember how I said that this novel was really meta? Well, there are countless references to other horror films and books scattered throughout the story, though I’ll get more into that later.

Now, Felix was going to spend the entire thirteen days in the house alone, but he actually gets a better idea. His best friend is a man named Thomas Ruth, who is a complete believer in the supernatural. Felix and Thomas had a pretty severe falling out a year prior to the events of the book, and you don’t find out what it was that caused the rift until much later in the story. But Felix decides to reach out to Thomas and ask him to stay in Rotter House with him; he figures it will not only help to repair their ailing friendship, but also serve to supply both the skeptical and the believing perspective for his book on this purported haunting.

Felix and Thomas settle into the mansion, and seem to be going some way toward mending their fences. Both of them are die-hard horror geeks, and spend sometimes entire chapters playing a game called Film Fight, a sort of horror trivia game (for example, the topic might be, “horror movies featuring Ouija boards,” and the players would go back and forth coming up with answers until one of them couldn’t think of one). There is a lot of this in the book, so if you’re not a horror geek yourself, it might be pretty tedious for you, but I was actually quite delighted at the two of them just shooting the shit about horror movies, and I was really amused by all the obscure references (such as one of the animatronic figures in the basement being referred to as Dr. Freudstein). But your mileage may vary; some reviewers who weren’t big horror nerds just thought this was obnoxious.

Anyway, Felix has each day planned out with things he wants to do in order to dare the ghosts into interacting with him. One day they use a Ouija board, one day they use some of their ghost hunting equipment, and so forth. At first, there is only marginal activity: creaks, mysterious cracking sounds, things like that. Stuff that’s creepy, but could totally still be attributed to natural causes.

But as the days go on, the paranormal shit gets blatant and also fairly gruesome. Felix actually starts to see a female apparition, and becomes obsessed with trying to figure out who she is, since her appearance doesn’t seem to correlate with any of the women who are known to have been murdered in the house. When he finally sees this ghost full-on, it’s actually pretty terrifying; he doesn’t call her the Split-Faced Woman for nothing. Despite Felix straight up seeing undeniable proof of a haunting, however, he still maintains a morbid sense of humor about the whole thing, and seems to be taking the whole enterprise not entirely seriously, even as Thomas is convinced that they are both in very real danger.

At one point very late in the story, I believe on the eleventh night in the house, Thomas actually disappears for a time, only returning after 24 hours, and it’s at that point that the massive twist is revealed.

I won’t spoil it for you, and although some reviewers easily saw it coming, I pretty much did not. The twist didn’t bother me in the slightest, though opinions about that among readers seem to be fairly clear-cut; there was a significant number of readers who really enjoyed the book up until that point, but thought the twist ruined the whole story. I didn’t, but I can totally see how someone would feel that way. Several people also pointed out that in order for the twist to work, the character of Felix, who has been narrating the story the whole time, had to deliberately withhold information from the reader just for the sake of the twist. Again, this didn’t concern me too much.

There were also some reviewers who pointed out that an aspect of the twist sort of played on some uncomfortable racial stereotypes (Felix is white, and Thomas is black). This wasn’t something that smacked me in the face with offensiveness while I was reading it, but I can also see why some would absolutely find it offensive.

Overall, I found this a fun, self-referential haunted house story whose shocking twist ending recontextualized everything that had come before. Although Felix wasn’t the most likeable character necessarily, the interactions between him and Thomas were really entertaining, and some of the haunting stuff was pretty damn creepy. Keep in mind that this novel contains some pretty graphic sexual situations and is fairly gory as well, so if that’s not your jam, then maybe sit this one out. Otherwise, give it a read and let me know what you thought.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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