A BAD PLACE: CRESTFALLEN (review)

“Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad.”

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Stephen King labels it “The Bad Place” in his masterful treatise on horror, DANSE MACABRE: A house or home that, through design or luck, houses malevolence in its foundation. Horror fiction has plenty of real estate like this: From Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher to Jackson’s aforementioned manor down to Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel – places of security and comfort that harbour anything but good intentions for those who enter its doors. Add Crestfallen Estates to the illustrious roll call of bad places, as Lauren Messervey’s debut novel , CRESTFALLEN, takes us into the aptly-named residence and its equally matched occupants.

The handful of stories found in this unique take on the horror anthology have very little in common – each one is dealing with their own unique personal horrors. What binds them together is location – the titular housing complex. Dilapidated, run-down and liberally trimmed with mold and mildew, Crestfallen is a residence in ill condition, its best days long behind it – if it ever had such days.  From the lonely barista who thinks she may have found a new BFF in her next-door neighbour, the party-girl med student who’ s on the receiving end of a series of increasingly grotesque pranks, to the son of a disgraced game show host who is forced to pay for the sins of his father, each comes through Crestfallen’s doors looking for escape, rebirth, maybe a fresh start or a quiet end to it all. But Crestfallen, and its more shadowy residents, have their own plans in mind for them, and those plans are far from philanthropic.

The anthology is always a tricky beast – the hit-to-miss ratio varying wildly between contributors and stories – but Messervey is able to overcome the pitfalls found in the sub-genre by anchoring the proceedings to one location – a sinister advent calendar with a fresh new horror behind every door. What makes it all the more impressive is the voices she takes one to tell each tale. Told in first-person perspective, Messervey finds each character’s personality and defines them with ease. Each one carrying around very real-world damage – depression, addiction, the shadow of infidelity and other sins of the past – that their new home twists and turns against them. Messervey’s also got a mean streak, as things get both physically and emotionally violent. At the end, each character is changed, scarred and broken – if they walk away at all.

Stephen King (again, I know) once wrote that “nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” Messervey understands that well, creating a heavy dread not with what we know, but what we don’t.  There’s no greater explanation or backstory for why Crestfallen is so malignant or malicious. The building’s origins are more than a mystery – they’re non-existent. It just is. And it gives the stories such a potent punch.

Crestfallen is an impressive debut, that leaves you uneasy as you turn the last page. It’s mean-spirited and doesn’t give a damn about your finer sensitivities. Whether or not Messervey chooses to tell more untold tales of her apartment building of the damned, or takes us into new and dangerous territory, I know I’m down for wherever she decides to go.

File her under “One To Watch”.

CRESTFALLEN is for sale in digital and hard copy format here.

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