Every now and then, books appear in my mailbox, unbidden. Sometimes they’re good. Sometimes they’re very bad. Sometimes, I read them and review them.
I don’t envy authors the daunting task of creating a horror novel, today. So many of us grew up with the horror giants of both cinema and novels, that the tropes and pitfalls are all but ingrained in us. We recognize archetypes and twists and turns miles before they appear on the story road, making it hard to surprise us. Or at least, this is certainly the problem from which I suffer.
Having said that, there is a difference between having to combat pop culture knowledge by painting new — or at least interesting — clothes on old bones, and just trotting out the same festering corpse, ala Weekend at Bernie’s. The Binding, by Nicholas Wolff is most assuredly the latter, as it reads like a “honey-do” list of horror tropes and ideas. Count them with me, won’t you?
The Binding takes place in a small, podunk town in, Massachusetts. Our character is a middle-aged man, not terribly happy in his current position as the town psychiatrist. He’s a man of science, who has seemingly seen it all, in terms of psychology. Which is why, when he receives a visit from the town recluse, on a dark and stormy night, raving about a family curse, he is tempted to write it off as some sort of drunken episode. With the help of his best friend, the town sheriff, our character delves into a mystery affecting the town recluse’s beautiful, young — albeit of legal age so as not to rule her out as a love interest — daughter.
As the sheriff’s unusual, gifted son navigates along a parallel path to the hero, Wolff provides us with heavy exposition about the “situation so far,” making it comically easy to deduce the goings-on within the first few chapters. It may take a few additional chapters to suss up the finer details, but it is immediately apparent that the old families of the town are being punished for a past misdeed.
You may have noticed I don’t mention character names and that is intentional; the characters are such blatant archetypes, they never feel unique. The sheriff may as well have been named Sheriff Best Friend. This level of banality extends to descriptions and set pieces, too, where everything feels lifted from the Horror 101 Playbook (I’m sure this is a real thing, in some publisher’s desk drawer). At the start of each new chapter, you can guess, with alarming accuracy, which character beats and challenges our hero will face, within. When the final reveal comes to light, it’s yawn-worthy, at best, making any attempt at buildup feel like time wasted.
I’m OK with formulaic books, when they’re done competently, and they put forth a little effort toward trying to jazz up a well-trod tale. Hell, I’m even OK with bad books, if they’re original and demonstrate a spark of creativity. The Binding can claim neither of those things. Nicholas Wolff clearly did his research on what elements are required to make a horror story, but he doesn’t seem to grasp what makes an effective, or even good horror story. Instead, we’re treating to the equivalent of a Final Destination or I Know What You Did Last Summer type of story; textbook horror stories that meet every beat, but lack any spirit.