This week’s read was another result of what I’ve taken to calling Kindle Unlimited Roulette, where I simply scroll through the recommended horror titles and choose a book at random that has a cool cover or an intriguing title.
Patrick Reuman’s A Place So Wicked was published in early spring of 2021, and although going into it I thought I had never read any of this author’s work before, upon researching his catalog I realized that not too long ago, I had actually read and reviewed his more recent novel, 2022’s The Adirondack Witch, which I liked but didn’t love. And to be honest, I had about the same reaction to A Place So Wicked; I think I liked it slightly better, because it was a haunted house story, but it still had some of the same issues that I encountered with Adirondack.
Wicked has a standard type of haunted house setup. There’s a family whose last names I don’t remember but might have changed a couple of times throughout the narrative: Richard and Lisa are the mom and dad; there’s also an uncle (the dad’s brother) named Robbie who is helping them move and hoping to stay with them for a while because his girlfriend just kicked him out; then there are three teenage kids, sixteen-year-old Toby and thirteen-year-old twins Trevor and Paisley. Just as in The Adirondack Witch, there are a couple sets of names that start with the same letter, but at least here the characters are distinct enough that I didn’t usually have trouble telling them apart.
Anyway, the dad Richard works in IT and has taken a new job in a tiny map-speck of a town called Black Falls in upstate New York. Of course all the kids are bummed out that they’re moving out to the middle of nowhere, especially Toby, who is kind of shy and not all that popular and feels as though he had just got to a satisfactory place in his old school where he had a couple of close friends and could remain relatively anonymous. Now he’s going to have to start all over again.
Weirdly, Richard is really, really enthused about moving to Black Falls, telling his family multiple times that this town is supposedly one of the best up-and-coming towns in the United States and that it’s going to be the perfect place to live. It’s even established that he turned down other job offers in larger cities just so he could specifically move here. Toby, whose POV we mostly follow at the beginning of the story (though the POV character changes wildly and without much warning, which I’ll talk more about later), finds it strange that his dad is so gung-ho, but when they arrive in town, he has to admit there is something really nice about the place, something he can’t quite put his finger on. Everyone seems friendly and welcoming initially, and even their house is massive and beautiful. Better yet, a gorgeous girl named Addison, who is the same age as Toby, lives across the street, and immediately seems interested in him. Toby starts to think that maybe this move isn’t going to be so bad after all.
But not too long after, of course, odd things start to happen. While Toby is out mowing the lawn, he discovers that the grass has actually been painted green; the real grass underneath is dry and dead, and the soil is black. There’s even a tree in the front yard that someone meticulously painted to look alive, even though it is likewise dead. The dead grass seems to surround the house out to a certain distance, then the grass gets normal again outside this perimeter.
There’s also the eerie stillness and quietness on their street in particular (though not on any of the other streets, which seem normal). People keep leaving casseroles and other food on the front porch of their house, but no one knocks or acknowledges the gifts; they just drop the food and skedaddle. When Lisa goes next door to investigate this phantom food phenomenon, she discovers that the house next door is completely empty, and most of the other ones on their street seem deserted as well.
The family also notices a horrible, overwhelming stench emanating from a locked room with a red door in the basement. The smell is so bad that at times it permeates the entire house, making them all gag and lose their appetites. Richard and Robbie want to get into the locked basement room and find out if maybe an animal died in there, but the realtor gives them the runaround, telling them he never could find the key. Richard and Robbie then try to force the door open, but the door doesn’t have any hinges to remove, and refuses to be pried open, remaining as firm as Gibraltar.
As the story goes on, each of the family members begins falling terribly ill: first Trevor, then Robbie, then Richard and Lisa. Toby and Paisley seem to evade the mysterious illness, though, perhaps because they spend more time away from the house: Toby by exploring a burgeoning romance with Addison, and Paisley by striking up a friendship with a fourteen-year-old boy named Eli who she meets at an otherwise abandoned playground behind his house.
At one stage, Toby very clearly sees what is undoubtedly a ghost in the attic, a woman who appears terrified and seems to be trying to force open the attic window to jump out. At varying other times, he and some of the other characters see many apparitions, as though dozens of people are peering out through the windows.
Basically, as events begin coming to a head, Toby and Paisley realize that they’re going to have to be the ones to step up and figure out exactly what’s going on, as the rest of their family has fallen deathly ill and the few other people in the town willing to talk to them are starting to act somewhat sinister. I won’t spoil what exactly is happening with this house and the town, but suffice it to say that it has something to do with the door in the basement holding back some kind of evil force.
As I said, this was a solid haunted house story; nothing particularly original, but fairly fast-paced and entertaining. I really liked the initial buildup of the weirdness, with the painted dead grass and the unseen neighbors leaving the casseroles; that kind of stuff is really creepy to me because it’s so random, lacking context, and isn’t overtly threatening, just odd. Obviously, “something terrible is behind that scary basement door” has been done millions of times before (hell, I just read another recent novel called The Exorcist’s House that had a similar thing going on), but I didn’t really mind all that much, and I will admit I was interested to see where this mystery was going to go.
But there was just something sort of…lacking about the whole thing. The explanation behind the house was conceptually kind of cool if not all that unique, but I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more. I’m usually an advocate of not explaining your mythology too much, of leaving some things to the imagination, but I think this story maybe erred on the side of not revealing quite enough. While I got the gist of what was going on, I felt like it needed a bit more depth, more history behind it. The ending, too, was a tad too abrupt for my liking, leaving a lot of things hanging and unexplained.
Also, a lot of the character establishment at the beginning of the story, such as the big deal that was made about Robbie’s breakup and his anxiety about having to ask Richard to stay at the house with them; and the stuff about thirteen-year-old Paisley and her ambivalent feelings about an older boy named Brent in their old hometown who had wanted to have sex with her, doesn’t ever amount to anything or play into the unfolding story at all, despite how much attention paid to those things in the first act of the novel.
There also seemed to be a lot of neat ideas that were introduced, but not sufficiently followed up on. For example, much was made at the beginning about Black Falls being this town that was up-and-coming, turning up on all these internet lists, and there were a number of instances of characters mentioning how this town was the best place ever. I actually thought that was going to factor into the story more going forward, like whatever evil that was underpinning the place was planting suggestions in people’s heads and sending tendrils out into the world to draw people there, but this was never really elaborated upon. And while I loved the whole setup of the neighbors leaving the casseroles, the explanation for it fell a little bit flat, and it didn’t really get mentioned much afterward. I guess I just wish there had been more back story, and more concrete reasons why certain things were happening.
I mentioned earlier that there were numerous POV changes in the narrative as well, which made the novel read as somewhat cluttered and unclear. I don’t have a problem with changes in POV characters, of course, but it’s generally better to start a new section when you’re inside the head of a new character, to lessen confusion. This one was kinda all over the place; it mostly started out from Toby’s perspective, but then switched on a dime to his siblings, his parents, and his uncle Robbie, sometimes in the same paragraph. It just came across as slightly muddled, and sometimes I had to read bits twice to make sure I knew who it was that was talking.
There were also several grammatical errors, and clunky, repetitive sentence structure that at times read like YA, although I’m not sure that was the intention. Overall, though, this was a decent read, with some intriguing ideas and some spooky set pieces; I just wish there had been less pointless character stuff and more stuff about the town’s history and the nature of the curse.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.