Amy Cross was a name I hadn’t encountered before in the realm of horror fiction, but doing some research into her work demonstrated that I probably should have heard of her before now, because she’s written a metric shit-ton of books, mainly in paranormal horror and fantasy. She’s a British writer who looks to have several series going on simultaneously, and they seem to be very popular and well-reviewed. The particular book of hers I read—which I just chose at random because it was free on Kindle Unlimited and had a title that sort of reminded me of a novel project I’ve been working on myself—isn’t part of any of her previous series, so I’m guessing it’s a total standalone. It was published in the late summer of 2022.
I have to say right up front that I had kind of an odd experience with this book. In some ways I almost feel like I didn’t like it; that is to say, I found the characters sort of thinly drawn and unlikeable, and the story itself was a bit repetitive, especially in the first two acts. But despite that, I found that I couldn’t stop reading it and was often anxious to get back to it when I was doing something else. It’s hard for me to explain. I actually loved the premise, and the mystery of the thing pulled me right in, so I guess that was enough to get me invested in the story even though the characters all sort of pissed me off and didn’t really come across as relatable or real in any way.
The dialogue too sounded slightly stilted or unrealistic to my ears (or eyes, I guess), but maybe that’s more a case of disconnect between the British tone of voice and my American one (though I read lots of British authors and don’t usually have that problem, so who knows).
Anyway, at the beginning of the story, we’re following an English couple named Steve and Penny, who have just become engaged and are on a week’s holiday in Barcelona. Steve seems sort of a typical bland asshole, just “yes, dear”-ing his way through things while also seeming to have some barely concealed resentment toward his fiancée. Penny, for her part, comes across as a bit of a basic bitch initially; not exactly a Bridezilla, but one of those sorta high-maintenance chicks that guys are always complaining about. She gets better as the book goes on and becomes less of a wet mop, but she’s still not super compelling as a person. I was actually surprised as I read this that the author was a woman because the two main female characters in the story came across to me like a dude writing what he perceived to be the two “types” of women: the rigid, demanding one, and the uber-crazy one. That said, the main male character, Steve, was no prize either, and at times was straight-up awful, so I guess it all evens out.
Anyway, while Penny is planning out their vacation itinerary and Steve is just like “whatever” and not even listening to her most of the time, a very strange series of events begins to unfold. While they’re in the hotel’s restaurant shortly after arriving, Steve swears that he sees his ex-girlfriend Annabelle sitting at the bar. The weird thing, though, is that sometimes it definitely looks like her, but then a minute later, it doesn’t really look like her anymore and Steve is wondering how he thought it could be her in the first place. He’s a bit freaked out by this, as you might imagine, because Annabelle, it turns out, was a certifiable nutcase; he dated her years before and they were together a while, but all his friends hated her guts and thought she was a lunatic. Eventually, Steve gathered up enough intestinal fortitude to dump her, and he hasn’t really seen her or thought of her since then, or so you’re led to believe at first (though complications concerning this subject arise later on in the story).
Steve can’t imagine why Annabelle would be in Barcelona, if indeed the woman is her, which he’s never entirely sure about. Is it just a coincidence? Is she stalking him? Or is there something even more bizarre going on? He sees her sitting at the bar frequently, but it’s driving him crazy because sometimes he swears it’s his ex, and other times it’s clearly not her. It also turns out that Steve and Penny are staying in room 120, and the mystery woman is right next door, in the titular room 119. Steve starts hearing weird-ass noises coming from over there, like scratching at the walls and ragged breathing and sounds like someone thumping around, but when he goes over there to see what’s happening, the woman—who is clearly not Annabelle now but still sort of reminiscent of her—acts like nothing’s wrong. There’s also the small matter of the light in the hallway outside of room 119 constantly flickering. Hmmmm…
Steve is wigged out about the whole situation, which leads him to be even more checked out from his fiancée than he was previously. And since he doesn’t tell Penny at first what’s causing him to be so distracted, Penny is getting a tad annoyed at his inattention, and understandably so.
Roughly a third of the way into the story, something really drastic happens involving this woman in 119, and it’s so fucked up that Steve and Penny fear their entire holiday will be completely ruined. They try to get past the trauma and salvage what’s left of their time in Barcelona, but shortly after the horrific incident, Steve becomes convinced that another woman who works at the hotel—a Spanish bartender named Estella—is actually Annabelle, even though Annabelle is obviously English and a bit older than Estella. At this point, Steve has finally told Penny what the situation is, but of course she just thinks he’s losing his marbles and having some kind of obsessive and very delayed reaction to his acrimonious breakup with Annabelle a decade before.
Separately, though, Steve and Penny each decide to do some investigation into this Annabelle thing, and to that end, they both contact Steve’s friend Jack back in England to see if he can figure out what happened to Annabelle after the breakup and whether it’s possible she might be in Barcelona with ill intent.
Long story short, there are definitely some supernatural shenanigans afoot, and that’s not really a spoiler since the word “ghost” is right there in the title. The story isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems as first blush, however, and there are some interesting twists and turns as the narrative winds its way toward the conclusion. I will say, though, that one thing I found a bit frustrating was the fact that the reader figures out what’s going on LONG before Steve and Penny do, and while that admittedly happens in a lot of stories and is actually a pretty effective method for building tension when done right, here it just seemed like the pair of them—and particularly Steve—were complete idiots for not figuring out what was very obviously happening in front of their faces. Sure, it involved the paranormal, so there’s going to be a bar to clear there in terms of believability, but to be honest, as the story went on, it was so clearly spelled out in-universe that the situation was supernatural, but Steve was still going through all these absurd mental contortions in order to deny the possibility that it could be real, which after a certain point just made me want to slap him in the mouth.
Also, in the third act of the book, we actually get some flashbacks and some scenes from Annabelle’s point of view, and we also find out that Steve is even more of a shit than he had previously appeared. For a while, I thought the author was setting this up to make Annabelle seem more sympathetic, or hint that we were actually given a mistaken impression of her because of Steve’s biased portrayal, but that didn’t really happen; sure, Annabelle had issues and you could have a smidge of empathy for her in that regard, but she was such an over-the-top insane, narcissistic douche that any goodwill you felt that was engendered by Steve’s shitty treatment of her was thrown right out the window. As I said, no one in this was really all that likable, and even Penny, who was the most innocent and least dickish of the three, started to get on my nerves pretty much immediately.
As I mentioned, I had kind of an ambivalent, love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand, the mystery was really intriguing and got me hooked from the first page, as I was trying to suss out whether Annabelle really was there in Barcelona, whether Steve was suffering from delusions, or whether something more complicated was going on. On the other hand, the characters were all a bit grating, especially Steve, and I found myself not really caring if something bad happened to him (or to Penny, to be honest), and at times even hoping he’d get his face caved in. I feel like maybe if Steve was more of a good guy, or at least a more interesting one, I would have been more emotionally involved in his fate and feared more for his safety as the shit started to hit the fan. Alternately, the story could have left the characters as they were, but then played with a sort of “he said, she said” narrative, where Steve perceived Annabelle and their former relationship one way, but that wasn’t the way it was in reality; that angle might have been worth exploring too. But the book didn’t really do either of those things to any great degree. I still enjoyed it quite a bit, despite my kvetching, and I did get really interested in where the mystery was going, so plot-wise, it really struck a chord. I just wish the characters had been a bit more dynamic or appealing, so I could have really gotten emotionally attached to the people rather than just the unspooling puzzle at the center of the plot.
The Ghost in Room 119 does have a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads, meaning that most readers clearly didn’t have the same issues I did, so I would still recommend the book to anyone into ghost stories with a sort of unusual twist.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.