Book review: The Visitors by Catherine Burns

Horror fiction takes many forms. Good horror is an art form, one that requires considerable mastery and imagination. Psychological horror shades into dark fiction – bleak, gothic at times, often literary – and as ever, books can be hard to categorise. Catherine Burn’s The Visitors is one of those books.

 

I’m only sharing some of the blurb as I think the rest is a spoiler.

“Marion Zetland lives with her domineering older brother, John in a decaying Georgian townhouse on the edge of a northern seaside resort. A timid spinster in her fifties who still sleeps with teddy bears, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.”

The Visitors is a grim read, more disturbing as the story unfolds, the narrative devoid of humour but not wit. The is novel driven by its backstory, and amounts to a acutely observed character study of the protagonist, Marion Zetland, as she observes her brother, John, and his deviant habits. Burns makes a study of dark passion, but not the brooding malevolence of a serial killer, more the banal evil referred to by Hannah Arendt, one laced with pathetic and inane self-justifications. For Miriam, a sad-sack of a woman in her fifties, is as drab, anxious and miserable as they come.

What ensues is a slow unfolding, a game of seek with no hiding, the reader allowed to peak first here, then there, as the narrator reveals Marion’s foibles, and those of her brother, their mother and father. The collective past of the Zetland family is not pleasant. And neither is Marion. She is impossible to like. She is irritating, repellant and frustrating. She has no willpower, no ambition, instead she is a hopeless figure stripped of her will, immobilised by indecision, her morality compromised by the voices in her head. Existing on a diet of biscuits and tinned food, she loses herself in imagination and fantasy, her escape from a lacklustre existence inside the only home she’s ever known.

Then there is the small matter of the visitors in the cellar.

What begin as justifications for Miriam’s inertia eventually turn into justifications for why she acts the way she does when she finally exercises her will. And it is only then that explanations of certain little mysteries emerge. Burns exercises perfect narrative control, in command of her plot and her characters at every turn, her premise a powerful one and demanding to execute. I can only imagine what it must have taken to write this book.

Not for everyone, but for those who do enjoy dark fiction, this novel is superb.

 

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