Review of The Stone Door by Steve Stred

After he went down there, an unspoken hush fell across our streets, like a fog that settled one day and decided not to leave.”

The Stone Door is the unexpected but highly welcome sequel to one of Steve Stred’s best-ever short novels, The Window In The Ground. The Window In The Ground will always remain one of my favourite Steve Stred stories for the simple reason that it so deftly explores two primary (and interrelated) aspects of human nature: curiosity and innocence.

In the original novel, curiosity almost seems to be allegorically embodied by the eponymous window in the ground—the anomaly that sits at the edge of a quotidian, rural town. At first, the image might strike you as ordinary, but the more you think about it, the more you detect a sense of wrongness, and the more your mind begins to conjure questions: why is it in the ground? is there anything on the other side of it? who put it there? The ending of The Window In The Ground answers some of these riddles, but not others. To reveal too much of the mystery is, of course, to destroy it. But be that as it may, the original premise held such power, I was delighted to discover there would be a sequel.

Following on from the events of The Window In The Ground, The Stone Door takes us farther out to new dimensions of fantasy and horror. Like the first book, The Stone Door is written in an intimate and confessional first-person style. Stred is truly a master of making even the most esoteric concepts feel grounded, often using narrative voice to achieve this. However, in this book, we follow a different character from the first, one who remains nameless, and who watched from the sidelines as the events of book 1 unfolded. Now, they have to deal with the aftermath of what occurred.

This new character is similar to our former protagonist. Older, and yet also likewise naive, he wishes he could do something about the horrors that have been unleashed on the town due to the actions of “the boy”. But his father is controlling and has preordained a life for him working at the mill. Luckily, our protagonist has a rebellious streak, coupled with a fantasy of desire for the mysterious “girl next door” Sue Ellen, who turns out to be the very person who can lead him towards his true destiny.

The Stone Door’s early chapters are full of subtle omens that imply an impending doom for our town and townsfolk:

We kept our eyes on each other’s for as long as we could, young love and all that, but the moon was high, its illumination forever changed, and my blood had never run so cold.”

Stred takes the “slow burn” approach and steadily builds a sense of unease and “not-rightness” which is barely defined, more felt, and he impresses this upon us with the sinuous language and the use of images (such as the moon and blood in the above quotation).

Like the first book, The Stone Door explores innocence and curiosity. Stred also unpacks more of the relationship between these two primary facets of human thinking and being. He shows that curiosity is a trait of innocence, and yet ironically curiosity often leads to the loss of innocence. Our protagonist is drawn to things he doesn’t understand, and to the beautiful Sue Ellen who is certainly more than she appears, but the nearer he draws to these mysteries, the nearer he draws to a flame that will burn away his naivety. Can his sanity survive this awakening to the truth? Are human beings meant to understand what lies on the other side of the window in the ground, or the stone door, which represents an even deeper mystery?

Reading this short novel reminded me of Blue Velvet by David Lynch. Lynch’s masterpiece hinges upon the power of curiosity to draw the innocent Jeffery into that mysterious room on the seventh floor, and thus into a world of darkness he never new existed, but which has always been there just below the surface, much like the coprophagic, atavistic beetles we see in the film’s opening scene, roiling in the dark underworld beneath the American Dream. Stred similarly propels his narrative with a sense of curiosity that draws its protagonist—and the reader—deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. As in Lynch’s film, there is a sexual dimension to The Stone Door, and it also contains surreal moments that, on the surface of things, don’t seem to make much sense. The story is not a traditional type of plot, motivated by achieving objectives, it is a subconscious unfolding that is conveyed to us through a language of symbols: doorways, dreams of sex, forest pathways, stone circles, characters from mythology, fairy-tale cottages, and worlds parallel to our own that are dangerous yet beautiful. Time is slippery. Perception is not to be trusted.

Some will take issue with this approach, and it seems Stred anticipated this, for our protagonist reflects on the nature of the mystery he is embroiled in:

“Sometimes in life, like in the great books you’d read, not all the answers would be there. A person either let it go and accepted things for how they were, or filled in the blanks on their own.”

The reality is that we cannot know all the answers—at least on this side of the veil—and even if we could, they would likely destroy us. In this way, The Stone Door is not only about innocence and curiosity, but also about the greatest mystery of all: the mystery of life and death itself.

And isn’t that often the case? When you arrive at a point in your life, an apex, or a cliff hanger at the end of a chapter in your favourite book, where you’ve gone too far, invested in it too much, that there’s no coming back?”

The book comes out 1st March, 2024. You can pre-order the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA