Once again, I find myself writing a horror review when horror really isn’t my preferred genre. I didn’t quite realize how horrific this book was though, going into it, otherwise I might’ve reconsidered. Incidentally, I’m really glad I did read this one!
*For the sake of full disclosure, please note I received a review copy from the author of this title. This has in no way affected, influenced or otherwise coloured my perception of said book though*
WHEN HEAVEN AND HELL DON’T EXIST…WHAT DOES? Space Shuttle Conundrum collides with empty atmosphere, passing from known reality into the realm beyond life. At the same time, a dead newborn is resurrected amidst a hospital-wide poltergeist infestation. What connects these ghastly occurrences, and how can the fate of humanity rest on a single boy’s shoulders? As the haunted Douglas Stanton spends his adolescence an outcast—his only friend the ghost of a long lost astronaut—a porcelain-masked entity lurks in the shadows, planning Douglas’ demise. Because Douglas is the key… the key to the door… the door between what we know and what we fear. And when the key is turned…realities will come crashing together. Step into The Phantom Cabinet…
What made me want to read this novel was that cover! It instantly reminded me of Faceless from Spirited Away, while the shiny moth-man eyes called to mind the bunny from Donnie Darko, and lastly, that text is just so retro, the cover seemed to promise a bizarre and intriguing read. The Phantom Cabinet was certainly both bizarre and intriguing.
Imagine if the film Event Horizon (which gave me nightmares for weeks!) met The Ocean at the End of the Lane in a dark alley one night and their tryst produced a literary love child. The offspring of that union would be this book, a bizarro novel that serves up gruesome horror with a liberal splatter of pitch black humour. The opening scene, reminiscent of Event Horizon, had me simultaneously chuckling and cringing. In fact, the humour in this book only hightlights the horror, making the truly bleak moments all the more soul shattering. That, or I have a seriously warped sense of humour.
Okay, but what is this book about?
Our protagonist is Douglas Stanton who, like Cole Sear, can see dead people in all their gory detail. Douglas is haunted but unlike Cole ‘I see dead people’ Sear, he is also a conduit, allowing restless spirits to pass through from the afterlife, termed in this novel The Phantom Cabinet – which may or may not be a sly reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari wherein the big bad manipulated an innocent to commit atrocities. Something similar happens to Douglas as the third person narrative tells his story – via disembodied ghost voice – starting from his miserable birth and following Douglas into adulthood. In this way, the novel is a twisted coming of age story, dealing with middle school issues such as playground bullying and learning to talk to the opposite sex, to teen problems like underage drinking and doing more than just talking to the opposite sex. Of course, while all this relatively normal stuff is happening, a lot of increasingly abnormal stuff is happening too, leading the reader inexorably closer to the novel’s fated ending. I won’t spoil anything for potential readers, but I will say that there was really only one way this story could end. While somewhat predictable, it was a satisfying conclusion to this strange, sometimes poignant, often hilarious, always horrifying tale.
As far as the horror goes, things get pretty gruesome and Thompson certainly doesn’t shy away from detail. (Consider yourself warned!) The writing is quite magnificent with some turns of phrase that made me take a moment to simply appreciate the syntax. I’m not talking overly purple prose here, but rather a frank yet creative way of setting the scene and describing characters.
This book was heading for a fine five ink splats given its unique and enthralling plot, and fabulous writing, but there was one thing about the writing that bugged me. Now I know how boys can talk to one another and that teasing and ragging can be taken to exquisite new heights when it comes to name-calling and playground denigration. While I’m all for authenticity in voice and authenticity in character, the number of times femininity was used derogatorily – like a boy telling another boy not to be such a girl or such a bitch – became annoying after a while. I don’t think this was the author’s attempt to sneak in some kind of misogynistic agenda, but I did notice these references and they irked me. Even more likely to offend, however, were the multiple uses of the word ‘faggot.’ Now again, I’m all for authenticity, so if this word had been used by a specific character because that character was an asshole – or genuinely wanted to call people a bundle of twigs – I’d understand, but this word was used a little too liberally for my sensibilities. Perhaps it’s just a part of the book’s greater irreverence, but I know it might offend some readers.
I didn’t expect to enjoy The Phantom Cabinet as much as I did. This book was a pleasant surprise and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys bizarro fiction or to readers of horror who are looking for something a little different. It gets 4 ink splats from me.