Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Women in Horror: Dead Spots

Mackenzie Babin needs a new start. A few months ago, she was pregnant and blissfully happy with an adoring husband. Now, her baby miscarried and her husband left, already happy with someone else. Everyone tells her to get over it, but she can't escape the crushing sadness. Alone and miserable, she sets off to drive back to Texas to live with her alarmist mother. On the way, she narrowly misses hitting a deer and stops in front of a defunct diner. Resolved to show she can do adventurous things and open a new chapter in her life, she enters the abandoned restaurant only to become trapped in a dead spot, a nightmarish place between the worlds of the living and the dead. Mackenzie has no idea who is a real person and who's a parasitic monster or a wraith. The odds are stacked against her and she just wants to go home.

Dead Spots is an unexpected read. I've read a few Rhiannon Frater books before and this one is a bit different than her usual. It all starts out fairly normally with a typical blissful day between a very pregnant Mackenzie and her husband Tanner. Then everything falls apart when she miscarries. Tanner stays around for a little bit, but can't handle her sadness and her grief. Most of her friends were his friends, so her circle has dwindled to her mother, who insists that she did something to make the miscarriage happen. Everyone just expects her to move on and get over it, but she simply can't. Grief has to be worked through, not forgotten for the convenience of the people around them. Everyone grieves differently, but all people see after a while is a depressing person they don't want to be around. I've seen this happen in real life as well and it's horrible. Rhiannon Frater writes the situation realistically (and partially autobiographically) and it makes the reader feel the crushing sadness of losing everything significant to you plus your support system.

When Mackenzie happens into a dead spot, everything changes. She thinks she's going insane as the world tries to kill her using shades of her husband and her mother at their worst as well as any other fear or anxiety she has to hurt her the most. In a dead spot, merely thinking or worrying about something can trigger the production of wraiths, a change in the setting, and of course an attempt on her life. In this world, a person can die multiple times, but part of their soul is eaten away each time. The mechanics of the world are creative. Regular people can shape a dead spot to its former glory and make it a safe haven with everything they need if they have enough power and haven't died too many times. They can also create objects and heal themselves with this power. These people are varied, so they don't always work for the greater good. A creepy clown made an amusement park into his torture chamber where he finds the same girl over and over and kills her in different ways. Other creatures in the world include incubi/succubi who suck energy from people until they become wraiths and shades that are kind of like ghosts.

Rhiannon Frater really shines with her character development and character relationships. Mackenzie starts out pretty broken and she finds it hard to cope with the dead spots as she found it hard to cope in real life. This supernatural place is a way for her to work through her demons and her grief and come out stronger the other side with some hope. Right when she comes in, Grant, an actor from the 50's, latches on to her in the guise of helping her. At first, he seems nice and normal, but small things he does start to bother me like putting her down, telling her to only listen to him, keeping her ignorant to the true rules of the world, and isolating her from potential friends who he brands as enemies. He is revealed to be an incubus who tried to manipulate her into a parasitic romantic relationship. Although he is a supernatural villain, so many of the strategies he used are employed by real life manipulators: the isolation, the gaslighting, the negging, and the exploitation her weaknesses. This part of the novel is where Mackenzie is at her weakest. She follows Grant around and falls into his manipulative traps.

After they are separated for a while, Mackenzie runs into a little boy named Johnny and another shaper named Luke. Mackenzie's and Luke's relationship contrasts hugely with her relationship with Grant. He respects her boundaries and her wishes. He's honest with her, teaches her the true rules of the world, and allows her to make decisions herself. They work truly together and support each other without ulterior motives. They both want to leave the in between world and go back to having normal lives. Their romance develops organically by getting to know each other, taking care of Johnny, and fighting to protect each other. It highlights all the things horrible things that went on between Grant and Mackenzie that felt off at the time, but it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

Dead Spots is one of my favorite books by Rhiannon Frater. It feels like an emotionally honest book that delves into some truly dark territory. I appreciated the author's note at the end that tells the real life events that happened to inspire the story. Frater dreamed the world after her own miscarriage, which she took months to physically and emotionally recover from. She does a wonderful job of grounding this tragedy in reality and using the fantastical world to work through her grief. The only criticism of the book is the fairly flat depiction of Mackenzie's mother who is consumed with OCD and the abrupt ending. Other than that, it was enjoyable and exciting throughout.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

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