Looking Glass Sound is Catriona Ward’s latest horror novel(reviews for Sundial and Last House on Needless Street) and it might be my favorite yet. It’s a horrifying novel about being held captive by one’s past, and the fear of letting it go. Ward’s prose is stellar as usual, delivering a sobering account while capturing the underlying spite and anger that guides it. The characters are well drawn, and linked through powerful themes that dig deep into the subconsciousness of the genre in the ways that Ward knows best.
Wilder Harlow is writing his last book. He wants to set the record straight on the summer that changed everything for him. 30 years ago, in a small New England beach town, he made new friends while watching his parents’ relationship disintegrate. 31 years ago, the Daggerman haunted the very same town, breaking into cottages and taking pictures of children with a knife held to their necks. No killings occurred, but that didn’t stop Wilder and his friends from finding a body. A few years later while trying to make sense of his time, Wilder befriends Sky, who helps him cope, and dig a little deeper into his past. But Sky had ulterior motives, and he steals Wilder’s notes, turning them into a sensational horror novel titled Looking Glass Sound. With Sky’s fame receding, Wilder returns to the beach town of his past to finish his version of events. But it turns out he may be haunted by more than just his childhood.
Ward has a knack for understanding what is horrifying. The slow build up of dread through the story is punctuated by an understated and distant horror. Most of the reveals happen secondhand, interpreted by the author from a distance. The famed Daggerman’s reign occurs a year before Wilder spends a summer vacation in the beach town. The revelation of the Daggerman’s modus operandi is background noise, seen as a headline in a newspaper. He’s not really involved with it, just an item of curiosity to his “big city” mind. The terrible events that occur within and around Wilder’s life are similarly twice removed. With the exception of one particularly jarring episode, most major events are discovered in the newspaper instead of being experienced firsthand. This distance allows the reader to take in the horror the same way Wilder does, allowing an empathetic shock to take control, instead of a pulse pounding terror. But Ward uses it to her advantage as the really big reveals reach out and grab you from the page after you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security.
Ward amplifies these feelings with writing that is at the top of her game. The meta-fictional narrative allows several different perspectives to take hold, each with their own voice and direction. The first few switches are a little confusing, but Ward plays a steady rhythm despite the asymmetric weight given to each section. Wilder’s grasp on reality slowly slips through the book as memoir becomes fiction. The slide feels natural, and doesn’t stray into absurdity. It feels like a madness born of frustration and epiphany, not one of contrivance. Ward has always been a patient writer, but Looking Glass Sound takes this to a whole new level. Perspective shifts rarely give further insight, causing as much confusion as they do curiosity. It isn’t until the end that the picture starts to become clear, and the horrifying prize is revealed.
I have always been appreciative of Ward’s genre investigations, but Looking Glass Sound just hits different. Thematically, the meta-fictional narrative, and the distance from the horror are incredible dance partners. Ward plays on the flawed tool that our memory is, and our need to capitalize on it to make ourselves feel sane and give our lives meaning. The emotions Wilder goes through are so clearly painful, but in some ways misguided. There is a deep resentment that pours out of Wilder, and though he’s been given chances to move on, he can’t. If he can’t be the author of his own pain, then what is the point of it all? Frankly, the final chapters both blew me away as much as they destroyed me. Ward’s patience with her own characters and narrative, allowing the themes to blossom in progressive steps as the climax draws near is astonishing.
If you have yet to pick up any of Ward’s work, do yourself a favor and start now. Looking Glass Sound is a spooky experience and fits perfectly at the end of the summer as the leaves prepare to turn red. It’s a great exploration of authorship and what we owe the subjects of narratives. It’s horrifying in the moment, and refuses to let go of you even after you turn the last page.
Rating: Looking Glass Sound – Dive In And Let It Pull You Under