Monday, May 9, 2011

REVIEW: The Door at the Top of the Stairs by Alison Holt

Wow. This was a difficult read. That’s not to say it’s poorly written, that there were problems with the story, or that I had issues with the characters. Far from it. When I say it was a difficult read, I’m referring to the emotional depth and the incredibly moving scenes of graphic torture. That may sound odd coming from a self-proclaimed fan of the likes of King, Barker, Lumley, and Laymon, but Alison hits you right in the gut, sucking the very wind from you with how she frames the violence.

Morgan and Ryland are a lesbian couple, but it’s important to note that is definitely not an erotic story. They’re simply two strong individuals, in a committed relationship, who both happen to be women. There are some mildly romantic moments, but mostly this is a story comprised of normal, everyday domestic comfort. Morgan is, by far, the more highly strung of the two, being strong willed, quick to temper, and extremely protective of her animals. Ryland is the yin to her yang, being more intellectual than emotional, but also of a more even temperament.

Jesse is a woman very much like Morgan, and that brings the two of them into conflict early and often. Their scenes together are tense, at best, and antagonistic, at worst. Just when you figure this contest of wills either has to explode into physical violence or simply fall apart, Rylan clues into Jesse’s motivation and begins the slow exploration of the forgotten trauma that is slowly ruining her life.

That trauma is the source of the emotional discomfort, contrasting scenes of rural tranquility with scenes of urban despair. Ryland, aided by Morgan, slowly helps Jesse to recover frightening, disjointed, isolated memories of the undercover narcotics sting that ended her career. I won’t go into too much detail, except to say I can still feel the nails being driven through her wrists, and I still see the spray of blood as a bullet explodes through the head one remorseful captor as his forehead is pressed against hers.

If you’re a fan of the darker episodes of Criminal Minds and are looking for a tale of psychological suspense, populated by three very strong women, that pulls no punches, this is a read worth checking out. It’s not a book you’re likely to devour in one sitting, but only because you’ll need a break to settle your own nerves and distance yourself from the horror.

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