Tempting Tomes, Sultry Scaries: A Review of Reprieve by James Han Mattson

What would you do for $15,000? It’s a question so hypothetical for most (myself included) as to be thought exercise only. But just the other week, one group chat friendgroup pooled funds for Powerball tickets. And while traveling with my husband last week, a local Galway radio show had a call-in contest for a 20,000 Euro prize. No matter the statistical unlikeliness, our eyes light up. We draft our wishlists, readying our checks for bills and desires alike. We buy the tickets, we textin, we stay on the line. 

​ Reprieve, by James Han Mattson, escalates this question. A six-room haunted house experience in Nebraska, actors with full-contact permission, and liability waivers galore: would you and a team of three other contestants have what it takes to win $15,000 apiece?  

​I devoured this longer thriller after Halloween, craving a “setting as monster” type of story. It wasn’t Evil Dead, it wasn’t American Horror Story: Murder House, and it wasn’t Amityville Horror. Reprieve was something disturbingly fresh. 

​Before diving in, know this stunner has several content warnings. Skillfully written to develop characters, villains, and plot, without promoting or condoning, there are instances of extreme gore, racism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, homophobia,and fetishism. 

The Characters

​In the maze of contestants and interconnected characters, it’s easiest to begin from the creator. John Forrester, gangly, mysterious white Nebraskan, is heir of his family manse, whichhe transforms into Quigley House in the early 1990s. Over the years, he hires young actors to staff his haunt, like Kenda. After her father’s sudden death, Black high schooler Kendra Brown and her mother move to Lincoln, staying with her cousin Bryanand family. Quigley’s reputation is shared by Kendra’s crush back in DC, and, as a horror movie aficionado missing her diverse home city, Kendra secretly secures a part-time job haunting contestants in Quigley’s parking lot. Bryan begins his freshman year at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and struggleswith his culture-shocked Thai international student roommate, Jaidee Charoensuk. Jaidee has moved to the US in search of his former Iowan English teacher and romantic interest, Victor Dunlap. Several chapters follow Leonard Grandton, late-thirty-something hotel manager in Lincoln. Leonard, reeling from a breakup, latches onto a friendship with John Forrester and, later, a sex worker he meets while traveling to Bangkok, funded by John. 

The Story

​Victor Dunlap and his fiancé Jane are Quigley contestants in need of two more team members. Victor ropes in Jaidee after reconnecting, and Bryan is signed on by Kendra and the promise of $15,000 to be the fourth team member.

But someone was murdered during this Quigley House challenge. On the first few pages, readers learn the defendant, a local on Quigley’s blacklist, entered Cell Five mid-competition with a knife, demanding to speak with John. It’s not a whodunnit but a whydunnit, told through court interrogations, witness interviews, gut-churning descriptions of each Cell from Bryan’s perspective, and longer chapters following Kendra, Leonard, and Jaidee. From Bangkok to Washington, DC, to Lincoln, Nebraska, we learn about this competition group’s formation and the year leading up to the tragedy of April 27, 1997.

The Fresh Take

Typically, houses become haunted by spirits once connected to a place through accident, misfortune, or abandonment. Quigley House is manmade – John Forrester converted the basement of his grandparent’s house into the competition. It’s what isn’t said on the page about these earlyopening years until the 1997 incident: the reader treads on boggy earth, guessing over the next jump scare in the fog. Is it from John’s notorious myth-making that only one group succeeded since Quigley’s opening? I stewed on the failure rate, wondering whether Victor, Jaidee, Jane, and Bryan would have been successful if not for the evening’s tragedy. Were the odds in John’s capitalistic favor, challenges stacked against contestants?Or were the Cells’ horror, paired with the increased belief in the supernatural, that the Old Mrs. Quigley legend became real?

​Intertwining setting and character into one sinister backdrop, haunted houses can be tough to portray in shorter forms. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been creeped out by some great haunted flash and short stories! Recently, I loved Rapunzel House in The Rumpus and The Velvet Room in Flash Frog.

Spookiness Rating: 👻👻👻👻👻

​Descriptions of Cells one through five, and the mental and physical terror actors put contestants through, would deserve a multi-ghost rating alone. Mattson layers onto his spooky cake,digging into each character’s motivation with Quigley’s competition, the real-life fear and desperation to join the Victor’s team in the first place. The grave-dirt icing on top:weaving narratives wealth, power imbalance, and violence, Mattson shows that humans are the scariest of all.

Spiciness Level: 🌶

The root of each character’s involvement with Quigley House is love, both real and imagined. To impress, to feel worthy, to apologize. From Leonard’s obsessions to Kendra’sDC crush, Mattson writes the more insidious side of sex and relationships, the fear of absence that can beget violence, unrequited feelings, and infidelity. Sex is on the page several times and makes sense with the overall story, but context makes this rating is a haunted, lonely ghost pepper.

Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Her work appears in Emerge Literary Journal, Rejection Letters, The Lumiere Review, and other fine publications. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.

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