To eight-year-old Bela, her family is her world. There’s Mommy, Daddo, and Grandma Ruth. But there is also Other Mommy, a malevolent entity who asks her every day: “Can I go inside your heart?”
When horrifying incidents around the house signal that Other Mommy is growing tired of asking Bela the question over and over, Bela understands that unless she says yes, her family will soon pay.
Other Mommy is getting restless, stronger, bolder. Only the bonds of family can keep Bela safe, but other incidents show cracks in her parents’ marriage. The safety Bela relies on is about to unravel.
But Other Mommy needs an answer.
When I read the synopsis for Josh Malerman’s upcoming novel, Incidents Around the House, my brain immediately screamed Coraline, and based only on synopses, I think I can be excused for this. Both Malerman and Gaiman’s novels revolve around precocious little girl protagonists who must navigate a world turned suddenly frightening and more complex than they had imagined, and both star creepy “Other” mother figures.
And I was excited! A Malerman spin on a familiar tale? Sign me up!
Incidents Around the House is not that.
I signed up for Coraline and suddenly found myself tumbling down into a claustrophobic story of a family unravelling that is finally much closer to The Exorcist in structure and tone.
That’s a weird thing to say about a book narrated by an eight year old, but it’s true. The Other Mommy is not only very real in this novel, she’s also very visible to others. And others don’t respond so well to a giant THING in Bela’s closet, or in their kitchen, or in their friends’ houses. In fact, they kind of lose their shit.
What follows the “discovery” of the Other Mommy is a whirlwind of activity from the adults, the ones who supposedly know how to handle pressing situations, and all of this activity continually comes to naught. No one knows how to stand up to a thing like that, a thing that shouldn’t be, a thing of such obvious malevolence.
Malerman, on the other hand, knows exactly what to do with it. There are numerous scenes within Incidents Around the House that reminded me of a sensation I thought I’d outgrown (at least while reading): actual fear. Part of it may be the way that the author projects those elemental childhood anxieties and terrors, but a lot of it just comes down to pure craft. Sentence by sentence, word by word, Malerman cranks up the dread and then hits us with a sudden reveal or a perfectly placed adjective to describe the Other Mommy’s movements, and suddenly I’m shivering, but I’m also smiling to myself, because this is the stuff, kids. This is what we continually turn to horror fiction for, the slim hope of experiencing that little frisson of unease.
There are definite similarities between Incidents Around the House and Daphne, Malerman’s previous novel, in that both are much more interested in the real-world lived experiences of their characters than they finally are in their monsters. They’re not MacGuffins, by any means. Daphne has a very real body count, and there is never any doubt about the very real dangers posed by Other Mommy, but where Daphne dug into a generation of kids shaped by anxiety, Incidents Around the House digs into the infinite messiness of families, the secrets they keep, and truly horrifying realization that the grown ups actually have no idea what’s going on. The world is rudderless, and little Bela may well be the most capable person around.
The good news is that the book works on both these levels, and the stilted nature of Bela’s prose, as well as the adults’ tendency to pontificate in long rambling speeches, all create a sense of a world off-kilter, where there’s room for anything to happen.
And Bela understands how terrifying a possibility that truly is.