Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Women in Horror: Shutter

Micheline Helsing is a tetrochromat, who has the ability to see different types of ghostlight thanks to an extra color receptor in her eyes. She's famous due to her lineage, her very recognizable name, and her stellar reputation for destroying corporeal and noncorporeal undead. One day, she and her crew (made up of Oliver the technogeek, Jude the psychic, and Ryder the fighter) are called to an emergency situation at a hospital where the original team was overwhelmed by a ghost. They charge in despite being still students (and technically shouldn't be there at all) and predictably are also overwhelmed by a creature unlike anything they've seen. Now, all are bound by ghostly chains that grow tighter and colder every day until they are eventually the ghost's puppets. Micheline and her friends only have a few days to exorcise the creature and free themselves before they are as good as dead.

Young adult horror is typically pretty boring, predictable, and super toned down for the audience. I keep reading them to try to find those gems that capture horror and don't let the age group of the target audience water down the story. Shutter is one of those gems and I loved it. The world is incredible. I was expecting a Buffy the Vampire Slayer style world where there are supernatural creatures, but they are hidden from the public because the creatures of worlds beyond our own would shatter their fragile little minds. I was wrong. The story has a very cool alternate reality where the first instance paranecrotic creatures were discovered in the 15th century during the Black Death pandemic. Later, in the late 19th century, the Helsing, Stoker, Seward, Harker, and McCoy families joined forces and created an organization to fight the various types of undead, resulting in Dracula's death and the in depth study of these harmful creatures. Fast forward over a hundred years and the Helsing Corps is alive and thriving, keeping the public safe from the undead menace. This story feels like peering through a keyhole into the world with so many other possibilities and stories within it. It's the mark of a fleshed out world and a feeling look forward to. The mechanics of the world are supported with logical and scientific explanations for a supernatural phenomena.  Modern technology and scientific advances will logically dispel the mystery around such creatures and provide scientific solutions through experimentation and study. I especially enjoyed Micheline's method of capturing ghost energy in her SLR camera and imprisoning it in film as opposed to using bulky mirrors.

The characters are vivid and enjoyable to read. Micheline is tough, accomplished, and smart, but also emotionally crippled by grief and prone to reckless behavior. She feels crushing guilt because she assumes responsibility for her mother's and little brothers' deaths, aided by her accusing and equally grief stricken father. Before this event, she was the first woman to successfully lead the Helsing Corps against the undead. She takes her calling and the family business very seriously and even discovered the effectiveness of an SLR camera as a weapon against incorporeal foes. Because of the tragedy that tore her family apart, Micheline is the last of the Helsing line. Therefore, her father expects her to marry an appropriate man from an approved bloodline and produce heirs like a broodmare. Micheline has her own ideas on the subject. Her heart lies with Ryder, the boy she grew up with who came from nothing but has become a very accomplished member of the Corps. Micheline's father wants to control all aspects of her life, including her reproductive choices. The chains that wrap so tightly around the young heroes is representative at least partially of the expectations of authority figures and the inability to choose freely. While the forbidden love angle is typical in young adult fiction, I enjoyed it and it had its place in the story without overpowering the more important conflicts. My favorite minor character is Oliver because of his contrast with Micheline. His life is the opposite of hers with supportive parents who challenge him instead of crush his spirit. He also views everything through a scientific and logical lens.  

Shutter is thematically similar to The Babadook. The tragedy of the possession of her mother and the resulting deaths of her mother and her little brothers shattered Micheline's world. None of her other accomplishments really mean anything to her because she failed her family when they needed her most. Her relationship with her father is completely obliterated because of unprocessed and ignored grief. For so long, she thought that simply locking away any feelings, including love and affection, towards her family would lessen her pain. Their old house is a time capsule, frozen at the moment of these traumatic deaths. They even opted to leave most of their things there instead of bearing even happy memories those things conjure of their deceased loved ones. Both she and her father are too busy ignoring their feelings and each other to heal and go on with their lives. He smothers her with rules, expectations, and commands while she rebels in quiet ways until their conflict explodes with physical violence from her father. The chains that grow and constrict her throughout the novel are also symbolic of this grief and how she can't truly move on from it. The ghost turns out to be her mother, so the central conflict of the story becomes actually about confronting her feelings, acknowledging this very formative event, accepting the deaths of her mother and brothers, and moving on.

My only problem with the novel is fairly minor. The choice of the Catholic faith as the one to protect its followers from evil was odd because of the focus on the scientific method of studying and destroying these monsters. It simply felt out of place. Religion didn't have a lot to do with novel, but Oliver and others of Micheline's crew were considered vulnerable to this evil because of their lack of faith. I suspect this is a nod to Bram Stoker's Dracula and its methods of dealing with vampires rather than endorsing religion, but it still bothered me. Shutter is an excellent young adult horror novel that not only tackles realistic issues like grief and familial expectations, but creates an impressive alternate history with vampires, ghosts, and zombies. The story is fast paced and exciting with relatable characters, action, and a large dollop of blood and gore. I hope it's the first in a series that will continue and I look forward to more from Courtney Alameda.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

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