While I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House for taking a literary, realist approach to the ‘ghost story’, I have to say it was delicious to read something with ‘supernatural enhancements’ of the literal and classically eerie kind.
Nestled in the isolated woods of Virginia, a creepy estate named Axton House with rumors of a ghost. Its eccentric and increasingly reclusive owner, Ambrose, suddenly dead. A suicide. At the same age and in the exact manner as his equally eerie father years ago. The butler, the last remaining servant of Axton House, vanished. The nearest neighbors recall the bizarre group of men who gathered at Axton House each year just prior to Christmas, upon the winter solstice.Ambrose’s lawyer greets the only recently discovered distant relative who has inherited the Axton House estate. The relative, named only as “A.” in the story, arrives with a younger mute companion, an Irish teen named Niamh with bright dyed hair and a punk style that contrasts here silence.
In communication with an “Aunt Liza” back in England, A. and Niamh begin to explore the physical estate (from the haunted mansion to a garden maze) and the history of its owners and their associates to discover the secrets of Axton House and a special all-seeing crystal eye.
The novel is written unconventionally, in a way that at first I feared would be gimmicky and annoying. Thankfully it felt neither. The story is related through a variety of records: diary entries, dream journals, Niamh’s notepad, letters, and transcripts of audio and video recordings. This creates a very effective situation where the reader is given exquisite details, but only in very limited contexts. These details need to be pulled out and fit together, and one must equally remember what isn’t being told or shown. Hence it is like a puzzle where you don’t know what the big picture will ultimately show.
The press describing this novel with words such as ‘clever’ ‘gothic’ and ‘fun’ are spot on and succinctly sum up the sheer joy that is The Supernatural Enhancements. This book truly felt like reading a children’s story again, but with adult themes within, for the ultimate effect of it all stands on the challenge of puzzle solving and the thrill of unexpected chills. Full of cryptography (messages one can attempt to decode) in various forms, each discovery only opens further mysteries and surprises.
Honestly, not everything was a surprise for me, I easily foresaw the role of certain characters. However, there were enough unexpected revealings of plot and twists to keep me pleased. I don’t want to ruin the nature of the secrets, but I can safely explain that I really enjoyed the union of the haunted/fantastic with a dose of scientific (neurobiology and quantum physics really) theory or speculation. This science element verges at the edge of actual scientific speculation and pseudoscience, the perfect spot for this kind of story.
The measured placement of The Supernatural Enhancements at this zone between the fantastic and that speculative region just beyond the limits of what science currently can describe is referenced throughout the novel with mention of The X-Files and Mulder & Scully’s relationship. The story is set in the early years of the show’s run, and features other pop-culture references of the time as well. Just as The X-Files references the gothic, occult fantasy of the first half of the novel, a lovely reference to the classic PC game The Secret of Monkey Island gives a perfect nod to the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving aspects of the second half.
The Mulder & Scully metaphor can also be extended in some respects to the relationship between A. and Niamh. This is not in the sense of faith vs. doubt that the two X-Files characters embodied. Rather, it is in the ambiguity of the emotions in their relationships. Niamh is described as being there to protect A. Yet, A. also shows the drive and ability to protect Niamh. They also obviously have deep connection and the apparent potential for romance, but their relationship seems to be platonic. This ambiguity that Cantero uses with A. and Niamh is absolutely brilliant, particularly given the novel’s ultimate close.
I really can’t think of much that I didn’t enjoy about The Supernatural Enhancements. It is entertaining, it has a good amount of depth, it is clever and challenging in the puzzle solving aspects, it is just all-around well written. Given the inclusion of non-standard elements like mazes and cryptograms and the like, I’d definitely recommend getting this in actual hard copy. I’m really eager to see the cover in reality and not just on a screen too. This is a book that I’m getting my own physical copy of to hold and enjoy again.