Review: Behind the Door by Mary SanGiovanni

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Biblical meaning of the name Zarephath is "ambush of the mouth." Appropriate, given that much of the horror in Mary SanGiovanni's Behind the Door is rooted in unspoken secrets.

Deep in the woods of Zarephath, PA stands a mysterious structure, the Door, framed in stone, its wood banded in metal. It opens to an alien landscape of a gray ocean and a enormous tower, a land populated by strange and evil creatures. Opening the Door is verboten - it is the one thing every man, woman, and child in Zarephath knows. You do not open the Door.

The Door, however, can grant wishes to those who dare to visit it. Properly worded, a letter detailing an individual's wants can be slipped through the thin crack at the bottom edge of the Door and their desires fulfilled within three days. But the urge to open the Door is strong, and after a single soul seeking a change in their life succumbs to pleas of "them beyond" the Door and briefly opens it, Zarephath is plunged into a nightmare. The wishes the Door has granted are being reversed, and after being haunted by the dead of his past, ex-Sheriff Bill Grainger calls on occultist Kathy Ryan to seal the Door forever.

Right off the bat, I was sucked into Behind the Door. SanGiovanni details the history and folklore of the Door, introducing us to the central figures of her small fictional town. We get an immediate sense of her characters, their afflictions, their flaws, as well as their relationships and their growing awareness of the Door and the evils that have crept through. This intimate overview of Zarephath and our protagonists reminded me, in some ways, of John Connolly and Stephen King, and SanGiovanni lulled me deeply into her narrative with deceptive, masterful ease. Her prose is crisp and tight, and the details are shared with such keen interest that it's impossible not to be absorbed.

Although it takes a while for series lead Kathy Ryan (first seen in 2016's Chills and very briefly mentioned in last year's Savage Woods) to appear, SanGiovanni at least gives us plenty of meat in other areas to chew on. Once Ryan finally sets foot in Zarephath, it's a headlong collision with Lovecraftian cosmic horrors and a race to the finish. SanGiovanni is flat-out an excellent Lovecraftian horror author, and she brings all the tentacled goods to the yard here. There's a particularly strong scene involving the discovery of a pair of corpses in a garage that, when Ryan prompts one of officers to turn over one of the prone bodies, had me softly muttering to my Kindle, "No, no, no, no, no." It's a wonderful bit of gross-out material, and the toll the Door begins to take on the townsfolk is a nicely horrifying discovery.

Ryan is a flat-out excellent series character, and I've been rooting for her return ever since I finished Chills a couple years back. She's a strong and capable master of the occult, and it's refreshing to see SanGiovanni's largely male cast treat her with the respect she's due. Perhaps it's wishful thinking to believe that a group of alpha male police officers and butch townies can treat a woman, even one with such specialized talents as Ryan's, as an equal whose abilities go unquestioned with nary a trace of mansplaining. But given that our Cheeto-In-Chief was, on the morning of this writing, taking to Twitter to call one of his former female staffers a dog, I'll gladly take it. Such an idealized portrayal of men easily and respectfully accepting the abilities and knowledge of women as equal, if not superior, to their own is not only welcome, but certainly necessary in these times. Maybe such a fair and balanced representation of the sexes is SanGiovanni's attempt to write her wishes into existence in the hopes that the Door can fulfill them. Or maybe it's just nice to read more into the text than was intended. If I can wish for something from this particular Door, however, it's for the return of Kathy Ryan, and soon. She's a character with plenty of staying power, and I hope to be reading many more volumes of her adventures in the years to come.

[Note: I received an advanced reading copy of this title from the publisher, Kensington, via NetGalley.]

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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