Thursday, October 12, 2017


Title: The Visitors
Author: Catherine Burns
Publisher: Legend Press
Pages: 288
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

It was the cover of this book that lured me in. I found it rather foreboding. It showed us a shadowy figure, framed by light, standing atop a flight of stairs leading downward. The view is from the bottom of the stairs, and the legend asks, can you escape the darkness within.

As readers, we found ourselves at the bottom of the stairs looking up, not at the top of the stairs looking into the darkness below. That was my hint that this book was different.

Marion Zetland lives with her brother, John, in their big mansion of a house, three floors tall. Even though they live together, Marion is mostly alone, with Mother’s voice in her head for company, and Neil, the first man she loved. This characteristic reminded me of Norman Bates from Psycho.

Marion has always been plain, friendless, unwanted. Since Mother’s nerves were delicate as a glass cobweb, she couldn’t bear to have anyone visit. Nor does Marion have a good relationship with her neighbours, Judith, next door, and old Mr Weinberg opposite. Even though she used to babysit Judith’s daughter, Lydia, for free.

Rejected, Marion chooses to stay in her own world. She lets the house go to seed, saving junk in the hope and fear that she will need it someday. She sleeps in her childhood bedroom in the attic, with her stuffed toys and beloved children’s books around her.

John’s behavior towards Marion sways between treacly-sweet concern over her welfare to violent outbursts over the slightest provocations.

John spends most of his time in the cellar, with the visitors, people she has never seen, but whose laundry she does once a week. People whose screams she has heard. Marion resents them and prefers not to think about them. 

Until one day when John suffers a heart attack, followed by a hip fracture, and needs to be hospitalized and she has no option but to go down to the cellar and confront whatever evil lies concealed there.

The synopsis raised unnecessary expectations for me, because the evil in the cellar wasn’t at all what I imagined it to be. Also, events mentioned in the synopsis should have finished at the halfway mark in the book. Instead, by the time John is hospitalized, we are nearly 75% into the book, and there’s not much time to wrap up the whole thing. This book simmers for far too long, and then there’s a sudden increase in the temperature.

The narrative was briefly interspersed with letters from various young girls, hailing from countries where English is not the spoken language, in trouble. They write letters of friendship to a 21-year-old university student called Adrian J Metcalf, who promises them a new life in England. He sends them money and helps them get a passport.

At first, these letters, displayed in italics, seem out of place, and we wonder what they have to do with Marion and John.

Of the characters, both Marion and John were very strong and well drawn, as were their parents. The neighbours, Judith and Mr Weinberg, were well portrayed too.

Well drawn isn’t the same as likable though. As readers, we do not feel the slightest shred of sympathy towards any of them.

Both John and Marion are damaged in their own way. Both are incapable of having healthy relationships with people. It seems as if they willingly succumb to the menace that pervades their lives.

It’s hard to tell which of the parents do more lasting damage to the children. Is it the father or the mother, or the dysfunctional family relationships that bode ill for them?

While we allow ourselves to feel lulled at the thought of Marion’s essential niceness, we slowly become aware that all may not be well with her. It becomes increasingly hard to sympathise with her, increasingly hard to tell whether she is to be relied upon. John is even less likable. He is unpleasant and a pervert.

There was nobody I really liked in this story. At one level, I felt sorry for Marion, the child. She never had her parents’ affection. Her mother looks at her with an expression of vague disappointment, as if she were something that had lost its shape in the wash.

That is why Marion doesn’t mind the idea of being used; surely that was better than being unused, like a forgotten carton of milk going slowly sour in the fridge.

Marion shares with us her memories, but we learn that she also has daydreams, in the same way a starving man might swallow rags to stuff his belly. At first, we believe they are real, but then we see gaps between her versions of events and other people’s reactions to them. That is when we see her recollections for what they are: Like a cutting taken from a plant, a separate version of Neil flourished inside Marion’s head.

As she gets older, she lies on her bed, aimlessly sorting through the contents of her mind as if it were an old sewing box full of tangled threads, foreign pennies, and rusty needles.

The author’s word-picture descriptions were sharp and cutting. She says of Judith, moving with a whirr of sharp angles like some kitchen apparatus set to fast motion. It’s very telling when the author says of her, The thin red smile left her mouth and stuck to the edge of her cup. The coffee she makes is so bitter that Marion’s tongue shriveled like a slug doused with salt. 

I felt angry with Judith on behalf of Marion, for treating the latter so snidely, pinching her hard, then gently patting the bruise better. For laughing at Marion’s sentiments and making her feel that a treasure that she had carried around her for years, only to be told it was a piece of trash.

The author makes a strong point about how people can seem mousy and innocuous and yet be so toxic. Their lives filled with unseen rottenness, like jars of half-used jam that have been sitting at the back of the cupboard for so long, you are afraid to unscrew the lid.

In the end, Marion becomes an embodiment of her house. Left unloved for so long, she seems to go to seed herself. The most damning lines are spoken by a medium-cum-spiritualist, who says of her, You are the kind of evil that comes from nothing, from neglect and loneliness. You are like mould that grows in damp, dark places, black dirt gathered in corners, a fatal infection that begins with a speck of dirt in an unwashed wound.

The ending left me with a sense of dread and distaste at how things had turned out. How do things slide, nay, degenerate so badly? The horror of this book is that evil doesn’t always look evil. Sometimes the homeliest face may conceal a terrible evil behind it.

Would Marion have turned out like this if she had been loved? Maybe not. Then again, who knows?

(I read a Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.)

1 comment:

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