Scratches by Joshua Marsella is a surprising and haunting novella about the lingering power of evil. A mother and son inherit an old house, but something is terribly wrong. It’s a classic haunted house tale, a la Shirley Jackson and many other greats, but Marsella startlingly manages to bring something new to the table.
I had heard great things about this novella from a variety of people, and it did not disappoint. Marsella writes with great passion about his characters; they are at once archetypal, but also very three-dimensional and grounded. Perhaps one of my favourite lines in the whole novella is when the young boy, Connor, explains to his mother that it’s BECAUSE he’s not easily scared that he likes to read horror comics. This is a character detail that stands out and becomes relevant later on; Connor wants to test his own boundaries. And this is consistent throughout as Connor bravely tries to get to the bottom of the supernatural occurrences happening in the house.
Just when you think one character is going to become a cliché – for example, the drunken single mom – Marsella twists it and offers you a window into their lives that cannot but elicit real sympathy. Furthermore, there are some genuinely surprising – even shocking – revelations in this book that are deeply unsettling. No easy answers are provided here as we learn the dark truth about Connor, his mother, and the spectre haunting their lives.
As well as character work, Marsella is very good at dropping in specific details that elevate what could be a generic horror scene to something genuinely saturated with dread. And speaking of dread, the atmosphere of this novella is perhaps one of its most stand-out elements; there is an awful sense of inevitability that pervades every scene, so that even when we’re outside the house, visiting a comicbook store or riding a bike down the street, we know we’re going to be drawn back to it. If I could compare this to one other book, it would be Stephen King’s Cujo. Both King and Marsella’s books deal with themes of how evil finds a way to endure, and tap into the archetypal childhood fear of the bogeyman in the closet.
Marsella is a potent new voice in horror, and I’ll definitely read his other books!
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