Secondly, while Mary Shelley has been called the “mother of horror,” there are very few female horror novelists in the game today (although that is slowly changing with outstanding work being released from writers like Sara Gran, Sarah Langan, Kathe Koja, etc.) so I’m always particularly curious about critically acclaimed debut horror novels written by women. And Slights is certainly critically acclaimed—it won the Ditmar Award (the Australian equivalent of the Hugo Award) for Best Novel in 2010 and was the winner of the Shadows Award (the best work of horror fiction from an Australian writer) for Best Fiction in 2009.
Lastly, Slights is one of the first releases from Angry Robot, an exciting new imprint whose mission is, according to their website, to “publish the best in brand new genre fiction—SF, F and WTF?!”
Slights was everything that I hoped it would be—and more. It’s a creepy kind of horror novel, the kind of sublime read that gets under your skin and leads you to distraction. It’s the story of Stephanie “Stevie” Searle, a young woman who has dealt with tragedy her entire life. Her father, a policeman, was heroically killed in the line of duty when she was only nine years old. Years later, while driving her mother home from a restaurant, she got into an accident that killed her. She has been sexually abused. One of her childhood friends simply disappeared. She almost died when she was seven from a burst appendix. She has committed suicide and almost died numerous times. During some of these attempts, Stevie has temporarily experienced the afterlife—and it wasn’t a dreamlike walk into a light, it was a dark room filled with people who hated her:
“All that sh!t about the afterlife, those people who wait for you in the light, it’s sh!t. What’s waiting is a bunch of people who want revenge. That’s what everyone sees. I have never seen the golden path, the sun-dappled air, the faces of people who love me. Anyone who says they do must be lying. There is no journey; I awaken in the place I am going, like a kidnap victim blindfolded until the prison is reached, so the escape route is lost. I am in the centre of a cold, damp room; I can feel mildew sinking into my lungs, though I can never remember breathing….”
The people waiting for Stevie in the afterlife are the hundreds of people she has insulted or offended in some way—and they’re all waiting to tear into her:
“The people waiting in the room suffer. They are alive, but part of them is snapped away at each slight. The snapped bit attaches itself to the offender, and this is what he sees after death. So the more you believe you are slighted, the lesser person you become. The horror of it is that if someone hurts you, you are in their power, because you remember them forever, whereas they will soon forget. The one who does the hurting usually doesn’t care what happens to the other, or will certainly forget that particular hurt. It is foolish to be wounded by such small things; the paper cuts of life, the slights, when the world is so terrible around us…”
Now, living alone in her parents’ house, she’s an irrevocably damaged soul—and becoming obsessed with events from her past, especially those involving her enigmatic father, who often dug in the backyard late at night. She too begins digging in the backyard and starts to find a multitude of junkyard items—a belt, a chain, a TV dial, a lunchbox, a wallet, but amongst the objects are also bones. Human bones.
Family members have always said that Stevie takes after her father…
As the years pass, Stevie becomes increasingly preoccupied with her experiences in the afterlife and one day takes a monumental step—she kills someone and revives them to see if they went to their own dark room…
On one level, Slights is a chronicle of one woman’s descent into madness but it’s so much more than that. There are major subplots that make this novel simultaneously an intimate and heartrending portrayal of a girl entangled in a web of dysfunctional family secrets and also a creepy and nightmare-inducing supernatural travelogue to the Other Side. One plot thread deals with Stevie’s Aunt Jessie and her seemingly boring life as a spinster librarian. Another revolves around her brother Peter’s attempt at a normal life with a wife and kids. And yet another focuses on a detective’s attempt to uncover the secrets of Stevie’s father’s violent past.
I literally couldn’t put this novel down. It’s laudably original and Warren’s acerbic writing style is equally poetic and twisted. For example, she describes tears welling in Stevie’s eyes as “a puddle of sting”—I loved that.
Looking for a truly creepy Halloween read? Want something wildly unique and highly unusual? Seek out and read this award-winning debut novel—you wouldn’t want to slight Kaaron Warren and meet her in the dark room of your afterlife, would you?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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