The House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman is a psychological suspense horror novella about two teenagers who have their first date on a stunning lake that is connected to others via small avenues. In an effort to impress the young lady, the dude eagerly complies to her requests of keen nature exploration. Their curiosities lead them to an area that is murky and mysterious where they discover a house at the bottom of a lake. Mutual intrigue abounds and they decide to take their inquisitiveness deeper, diving beneath the surface to plunder the unknowns of an eerie house that slowly becomes a home of horror.
At it’s core, this little bookish treat is about the magic and narrowmindedness of first times. First loves, first sexual experiences, first heartbreaks. The house and the setting is used as a wonderful allegory for the uncertainties and insecurities that stem from allowing yourself to become so vulnerable with another human being for the very first time in your life, especially when there is a shared experience involved that ties two people together. In that respect, many can argue that this novella isn’t horror at all. However, I would greatly contest that.
For the first time in either of their lives, they were falling in love.”
Horror isn’t always about brutality and incomprehensible amounts of gore and guts. It’s also meticulously psychological at its core, impacting the emotional and mental comforts by insidiously weaving in tendrils of discomfort and distrust where you’d least expect, and that is precisely what The House at the Bottom of a Lake does, and it does it quite phenomenally.
The almost tangible nature of the teenagers anxieties and awkwardness at trying to impress one another is written gloriously. I could feel my palms getting sweaty and my heart racing with excitement as theirs did with the small ministrations of successful social interactions. It reminded me a lot of what it was like to be young and curiously infatuated with another person. This leads to a desire to impress, to out-do previous dates and experiences to create an everlasting moment in the heart and mind of the person you’re with. It can lead us to do some rather outrageous things at times, like scrutinising structures beneath the surface of a super disturbing lake of shadowy intentions.
Other feelings, outside forces, fears. These were the enemies of a good thing. These were the problems people faced.”
Because the writing is so visceral and luminous and transportive, the levels of disquietude take root very slowly and subtly that you don’t realise you’re grinding your teeth with cautious anticipation for what the youngens will discover until the moment arrives and smacks you in the face. I could feel my shoulders relaxing with relief when/if they were able to resurface from their investigations. The way it can make your mind play tricks on you as much as it does to these kids is the essence of excellent horror storytelling.
Another unpopular aspect of the novella that I thought was a perfect fit was the ambiguous finale. The curiosity that the reader feels with respect to this house and the relationship’s development (or shattering) between the teens builds to a fun crescendo of optimistic expectancy, yet it’s never quite satiated. We are left wanting with the same officious levels of fear, restlessness, second-guessing, and hope as the teens themselves. Readers that require a bow-tied, perfect finale will definitely find themselves feeling frustrated and disappointed by this novella’s ending. While I lean more towards that preference, the allegorical nature of everything that’s represented in this story came off as needing the same levels of imprecision in that ending that the rest of the tale upholds. It’s like the last piece of a puzzle finding it’s home to complete the overarching picture.
Overall, I felt that The House at the Bottom of a Lake was a superb psychological horror read, and I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND this to folx that don’t mind imperfect endings and horror that stems outside of the normal expectations from the genre to offer a treat that is much more emotionally deceptive than one realises.
Publication Date: October 2016
Publisher: This Is Horror (978-1910471012)
Genre: Psychological Horror
Page Count: 116
Content Warnings: Detail descriptions of sexual interactions including intercourse. Mild cursing. Graphic descriptions of injuries caused by brown recluse spiders (can be quite disturbing). Caution advisory for folx with claustrophobia, nyctophobia, and thalassophobia.
GoodReads: The House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman
Availability: In-print; available in paperback and eBook formats.