Newly published through This Is Horror, A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman is both incredibly simple and complex at the same time: its basic premise is exactly what the title says. On their first date, seventeen-year-old Amelia and James go canoeing on James’s uncle’s lake, which is connected to another lake… which is connected to a third lake, hidden away and difficult to access. James thinks that this secret lake will impress Amelia, but what impresses her even more is the two-story, fully-furnished house they find at the bottom of it: there are dishes on the table, there are books on the shelves, and there are stairs to a basement. Nothing is floating, and nothing is water-damaged. The novella follows James and Amelia’s gleeful exploration of the house over the course of the summer. They take diving classes together and construct a raft with provisions and a mattress tied to its chimney so they rarely have to leave. The house at the bottom of the lake becomes their home. As their attachment to the house grows, so does their attachment to each other, love for each other becoming indistinguishable from love for the house. What they don’t know is that someone—or something—already lives there. And, when they find they’re too afraid of the house to stay, they find they’re also too addicted to it to leave.
Like Malerman’s earlier novel, Bird Box, which I reviewed here, A House places emphasis on experience rather than explanation: we don’t learn much about these other occupants, how the house got there, and how its magic works. In fact, the rule that Amelia institutes is “no hows or whys”: don’t ask how/why the house is there, how/why it has furniture in it, and how/why those objects act as though they weren’t in water (45). In fact, it is when James takes a moment to look closer at these furnishings that he thinks the presence is awakened.
I won’t go further into the plot to avoid spoilers, but I will say that, as was the case with Bird Box, I found the ending to be interesting but somewhat unsatisfactory. At the same time, the tension builds and inspires such curiosity, that I’m not sure there could be an ending that would satisfy more. While Bird Box is more literary in terms of its complex structure, A House is more literary in terms of its vivid prose, both texts recreating experience for the reader. But, whereas Bird Box clearly fits into the thriller/horror genre, A House is more difficult to place. I would describe it as a literary snapshot, its scope focused on a much smaller amount of time—a summer—and just James, Amelia, and the house. There’s lots of looking (which is interesting in contrast to Bird Box, where nobody looks) but little explanation. A significant amount of the novella is spent on the relationship between the teenagers, and there are moments when I wondered if it would fit best in a young adult classification, but these moments don’t last long. Just as Malorie’s realistic ruminations slowed Bird Box, I found that James’s realistic worries about impressing the girl he likes slowed A House—both are too surface-level to add to the narrative but too expected due to the circumstances to be unnecessary. The strength for A House lies in the unusual plot and the well-paced and detailed descriptions of the house, recreating for the reader the sense of addiction that James and Amelia feel, making any ending challenging for both characters and reader.
Laura Kremmel is a visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University. Her research embraces a love of Gothic and Romantic literature and the recent popularity of the medical humanities, particularly the history of medicine. She received an PhD in English from Lehigh in 2016 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her interests include Gothic Literature (Romantic to Contemporary), Romantic Literature, Victorian Literature, Medical Humanities, History of Medicine, Disability Studies, Mental Health in literature, Composition/First-Year Writing, Visual Culture, Horror Film/TV, and Editing Practices. She has recently published an article on Gothic configurations of disability in European Romantic Review and is co-editor of The Handbook to Horror Literature (Palgrave, forthcoming). For more, see her website. Follow her on twitter (@LKremmel)