Book Review : Josh Malerman - A House at the Bottom of a Lake (2016)
The internet has been hot for Josh Malerman since the publication of his debut novel Bird Box the way David Lee Roth was hot for teacher three decades ago and I have remained somehow unaware of this bandwagon until it roared past me a couple weeks ago. My friends at This is Horror offered me an advance review copy of Malerman's novella A House at the Bottom of a Lake they're actually releasing TODAY and before I knew what hit me, I had joined a party I was previously unaware was going on. So, today is Halloween and you can now order Josh Malerman's lean, taut and crafty A House at the Bottom of a Lake. It will sneak under your skin and make your flesh crawl before the clock resets at midnight. That, I can tell you.
A House at the Bottom of a Lake is the story of James and Amelia, two teenagers who are just starting to date. James has it all figured out: he'll borrow his uncle's canoe and take his sweetheart on a joyride across a nearby chain of lakes. The perfect set up to a budding romance. Only thing is: when venturing on the third lake, James and Amelia inexplicably find a house under the water. Yep. A house. A freakin' bungalow like there probably is at the end of your street. James and Amelia feel like they're stumbled upon a hidden treasure meant for them and them only to find. So they gear up with scuba diving gear and literally dive into their surreal and incongruous discovery.
So, is A House at the Bottom of a Lake psychological or supernatural horror? This is a sneaker question than it seems and Josh Malerman never really answers it. There never is a moment where Malerman lets the audience know what kind of threat they're dealing with and I find that kind of authorial playfulness very endearing. A House at the Bottom of a Lake confronts clichés instead of avoiding them. For example: two horny kids in a canoe in the middle of nowhere are traditionally exposing themselves to predators. Machete-wielding perverts, psychosexual tentacled sea monsters, stuff like that. But not in A House at the Bottom of a Lake. No sir. The "antagonist" in Josh Malerman's novella (if you can call it that) is oddly passive. How can a fucking house hurt you? It's underwater on top of that. How hard is it to avoid?
Let's get into that, shall we?
A House at the Bottom of a Lake exploits a century old idea: Sigmund Freud's theory of the uncanny. That familiar, yet incongruous images are terrifying in a unfamiliar context because they play with your sense of security. The house James and Amelia discovered is a haven or normalcy that just happens to be submerged. Things are in working order inside: there is electricity, things aren't really floating or rotting. It is a symbol of domestic bliss. Of their monogamous future together. It causes them both fascination and anxiety like the idea of commitment would cause any horny teenagers and because he underwater setting alludes to something that went wrong. James and Amelia's future might be in working condition, but it is desolate and empty. Something terrible seems to have happened there.
Another important symbol in A House at the Bottom of a Lake is water. Once again it doesn't operate that differently from other stories that use water for symbolic value, but it's the context Josh Malerman uses that makes it original. If the house James and Amelia are obsessed with is submerged, it's because it exists in their subconscious thoughts. I mean, the house is very real in the paradigm of Malerman's novella, but it projects their subconscious desires and water acts as a gateway. The showstopper of A House at the Bottom of a Lake clearly are the underwater scenes and if these work so terrifically well, it's because what happens inside the house is a projection of what James and Amelia both simultaneously fear and desire.
The only aspect of A House at the Bottom of a Lake I struggled with was the bubbly teenage romance scenes, which were a necessary evil for this book to work so well. I'm being nit-picky here because Josh Malerman wraps things up quite neatly in the end but it made me roll my eyes a handful of times. It stuck out like a sore thumb in a novella that is otherwise overflowing with crafty and original ideas. Otherwise, A House at the Bottom of a Lake was terrific. I've read it in two frenzied sittings over the course of a single day. If you're tired of the same old predictable monster stories for Halloween. If you think ghosts and zombies are so 2012, Josh Malerman's thinking man's brand of horror is what the doctor ordered. I get now why people like him so much.