Within These Walls
by Ania Ahlborn
Cover Artist: Samantha Everton / Taxi / Getty Images
Review by Katie Carmien
Gallery Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781476783741
Date: 21 April 2015 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In 1983, Audra Snow, called Avis, is drawn into a cult led by the charismatic and dangerous Jeffrey Halcomb. He promises his faithful eternal life and love--if only they will obey him in all things. But Audra, despite being pregnant with his child, has her doubts. Thirty years later, Halcomb is in maximum security, convicted of murdering Audra after convincing his other followers to commit suicide.
Halcomb reaches out to Lucas Graham, a washed-up true crime writer with a cheating wife and a contentious relationship with his twelve-year-old daughter, Virginia. He promises Lucas an exclusive interview on what happened that terrible night on one condition: Lucas must live in the house where Halcomb committed his crimes. Desperate for success, Lucas uproots his life and moves across the country--but Halcomb goes back on his promise, and it soon becomes clear that there is something terribly wrong with the house. For Halcomb's influence is far from ordinary, and his followers, though dead, are far from gone.
The book is split between three points of view--Audra, Lucas, and Virginia, aka Vee. They're all flawed but sympathetic, people whose poor choices are equally understandable and lamentable. It's easy to want them to triumph, even knowing that Audra is doomed and Lucas and Vee aren't far behind. Lucas had the potential to be the most unlikable, as it seems some authors have taken to the trend of thinking a male character's wife being meeeeean to him excuses all manner of bad behavior, but despite throwing in the occasional tiresome rant on his wife's affair, Ahlborn manages to neatly avert this. He is sometimes an idiot, but never intolerable.
Halcomb, meanwhile, is a chilling villain. It was a shame that Lucas never got to interview him, like Clarice Starling with Hannibal, but even so, Ahlborn paints a portrait of a terrifying man. He is frighteningly charismatic, charming and manipulative, with a unique backstory and a fresh twist on the horror trope of human-sacrifice cults.
The newspaper articles and Lucas's growing knowledge of all the people who’ve committed suicide because of Halcomb’s persuasion and promises of eternal life after death build on his terrifying but ultimately unexplained abilities. This very vagueness makes him even more frightening, because the reader is never quite sure of how much power he has. As he begins to influence Vee, one wonders--how much is he influencing Lucas? How much is he controlling what they think even when they aren’t thinking about him? How far can he reach? What does he want? Ahlborn does an excellent job of keeping the reader guessing; despite some pacing issues, the reader is never quite certain what’s going to happen next.
Unfortunately, the prose is oftentimes given to telling the reader something and then failing to show it, or showing something and then belaboring the point. Sometimes the characters will sound more as if they’re reading out of a book than having an organic conversation. Ahlborn also sometimes crams several weeks of character development into a couple of pages. Audra makes the decision to enter the cult very quickly; likewise, Vee comes to trust Halcomb within the space of a paragraph. This seems to be meant to suggest mind control, given Halcomb's supernatural abilities of persuasion, but are written clumsily. As previously mentioned, the pacing is also somewhat uneven.
Despite this, the book is an interesting and disturbing read--just not engaging enough to be devoured in one sitting.