Horrorible Review: “Mayhem and The Death House”

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough book cover

Mayhem and The Death House

Set during the reign of Jack the Ripper, London is simultaneously stalked by The Thames Torso Murderer, whose victims are found in the river that runs through London. This series of atrocities, though, are motivated by a supernatural lust that may be unstoppable.

Mostly working in series as well at the Dr. Who and Torchwood universes, Sarah Pinborough has set Mayhem in a time and place that will be familiar to Ripper scholars, and you’ll recognize the real people and places used to populate a cold and dark place in the world during a desperate time – if you lived there, anyway. The Thames Torso murders were real and contemporaneous to the Ripper, and some of her characters, like Dr. Thomas Bond, Scotland Yard Inspector Frederick Moore, suspect Aaron Kosminski, reporter Jasper Waring and his dog Smoker worked on both cases.

Pinborough uses a sort of Victorian lite pastiche that includes sentence structure, dialogue and a meandering, introspective narrative which somehow leaches the feeling of danger from Whitechapel and caused me to be less than sympathetic about the characters. When Dr. Bond goes traipsing off to have Chi Chi fill his opium pipe I didn’t care if some mugger might bash in his head, and I felt the same for all the other characters.  A couple of the victims are somewhat sympathetic but their appearance is too brief for a reader to develop feelings for them, with one exception.

The reader finds herself walking through 1888 Whitechapel to the opium dens while introspecting, examining murder scenes while introspecting, even introspecting while introspecting.  This may be fine for introducing characters but shouldn’t go on for two hundred pages.  It may not be November 1888, either.  The reader will have to pay close attention to the when as well as the who and where according to the chapter headings.  This bouncing back and forth between places, times and characters takes a while to get used to.  It took me a really long time.

Mostly I found myself waiting for some mayhem.  After about two hundred pages I was finally rewarded with some forward movement and the book suddenly became Lovecraftian in its creepiness, at last using the setting and culture to create some tension.

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough book cover

Though the last quarter of it was good I have to say I was disappointed in this book, especially after her excellent The Death House, which I really liked a lot.  Let me start by saying this is the saddest story I’ve read in a long time.  I’m not sure I’d characterize it as horror, but I kept thinking this could make an excellent creep fest movie in the right hands (The Death House movie coming out next year is a separate address).  The setting alone is creepy enough to wig out a lot of people.

Toby and all the other kids have been taken from their families and made to live in a bleak and moldering mansion somewhere in northern England.  Shadowy events and characters surround the children living on the edge of mortal danger as they all wait to get the mysterious sickness that brought them here. And then it begins to claim them, one by one.

The Death House is all about the characters and their interactions as their dark days drag by with nothing to do but live with the sure knowledge they will soon be dead. I love Toby’s character arc.  He doesn’t have a lot of time to grow into a man, but he surely does that through the course of the book. Clara rang really true for me, as I know some dancers and they’re just like her. The pacing is perfect and Pinborough never lets you forget how deadly their situation is, despite the almost unrelenting boredom of their day to day lives.  It’s like The Lord of the Flies on downers, with a better setting.

Pinborough subtly leaks bits and pieces of the Death House System backstory in this earthbound science fiction universe.  This is not the only house where Defectives are kept, and it’s a hundred years past the last time there was snow in England.  The reader never sees the Sanitarium on the top floor, only moribund children being taken to it in the dead of night.

Are they dead?  They certainly get sick but do they die of the sickness, or mutate?  It’s science fiction so who knows.  Or maybe in this far off time sickness itself is so unusual and feared that this system of isolation and mysterious end has evolved to deal with it. Pinborough frustrates and tantalizes the reader by not answering all the questions, and on first reading this left me fairly desperate about the end.  On one hand I wanted to know what happened to Toby and Clara, and on the other I was afraid she’d leave us completely in the dark, since the whole book is so mysterious.

Mayhem and The Death House are two novels set in vastly different times and places, and both move slowly.  One is slow as a reflection of the era, however, and the other as a means of deepening the mystery and driving the reader crazy with anticipation. Of the two, The Death House is a superior book in setting, characterizations, pacing and keeping the reader on a delicious balance of frustration and fear of what might happen next.

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