House of Fallen Trees by Gina Ranalli is a supernatural tale, baited with a dark chunk of psychological terror. As the book opens we meet Karen Lewis, a writer who bears lingering and somewhat dreadful thoughts in regards to the disappearance of her brother, Sean.
When Karen starts to receive strange and enigmatic, but harrowing, messages in her dreams, that then appear to break across into reality, she has reason to begin to doubt her sanity. But the persistence, and eventual corporeality, of some of the communiqués has her give them more serious attention.
Then she receives information of an equally surprising nature. Her brother had left a handwritten will: one that named her as recipient of his half of a B&B he had purchased with his partner in the deep countryside of the North-western U.S. Seeing this as an opportunity to try and find out more about her brother, and possibly achieve some closure too it would seem, she ventures off to check out the B&B.
Karen journeys out to meet her brother’s former boyfriend Rory, and his friend Saul. Though there’s an initial sense of resentment from Rory that Karen has taken such an active interest in her brother’s former life, he’s welcoming enough. Saul is friendly too, and after harbouring initial concerns about the pair she settles down, a little more at ease in their company.
After having started with a strong focus on the supernaturally strange and surreal, there’s a fair pause before anything further of interest in that regards really happens. But Ranalli’s writing is enough to carry us through, and her characterisations worthy of keeping our attention.
Aside from the initial weirdness of the persistent ominous message being piped through to her, the general spookiness that initially comes across in House of Fallen Trees is at times though somewhat mundane, and occasionally veers toward the clichéd. That’s cool though: not every book is going to shake one to the core with fresh new ideas. In many cases, it’s more about the execution.
As if tempting the reader to doubt her ability and then double-back on us and trick us, have us fall into the trap thinking we’ve been down this road before, Ranalli does pull a few tricks out of her hat. In that respect, I was suitably impressed and found some of the ideas being presented as creepy, and the atmosphere being built as more than apt.
Once Karen reaches her sought after destination, a large and isolated, ship-shaped house in the middle of the woods, things begin to take a more spooky turn. Pictures take on ominous representations, she sees things that aren’t there, and so on. That’s not all; her own perceptions on time, actions, reality appear to begin to waver. Can she trust herself?
There are faint hints of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House here, and to her credit Ranalli does appear to have aimed high in her goals with this novel. And you know what, as I read some of what was written here, I have to say I think she’s tip-toed toward brilliance at times. I have to add though that these highlights in the book are spoiled by imperfect execution. Some of the better ideas I think fail too, more due to pacing issues.
There is an obvious talent here. The ability to tell a story, line up a series of events in effective manner, is one thing Ranalli can certainly do. The ability to craft atmosphere and deliver chills, thrills, shocks and spills within said material is there too, but as mentioned doesn’t reach fruition. In that regards, when the supernatural element wasn’t fully realised, I felt disappointed; if only because I saw the promise on offer.
Despite my issues with House of Fallen Trees, I’ll definitely be checking out Gina Ranalli’s other works now, as there’s something about her writing style that I really quite enjoyed. Though this book misses a few opportunities to make a deeper impression with its subject material, it’s far from bad, and is certainly worth a read.