Jeffrey Ford wants to give his readers a creature feature, haunted house story in The Twilight Pariah. He also wants it to be quirky and funny, by virtue of the odd trio of college students involved. Problem is, it just fell flat for me. Not scary, and not especially humorous either.
Henry is our narrator, and he gets roped into some amateur archaeology by his friend Maggie. She also gets their friend Russell in in the gig. All three are about to start their final year of college, and assume they won’t see much of each other after the summer’s over. This is the proverbial last hurrah.
The “dig site” is an abandoned house not far from their town. In its heyday, the mansion was home to a wealthy couple who ran with a pretty fancy crowd. So Maggie thinks that digging up their outhouse might be an interesting project. Never mind that it’s technically illegal, since they have no permission to dig. But she’s providing the beer and weed for her crew—and Henry and Russell will work for that.
Before they get too deep, the friends dig up two curious things. One is a bottle of weird-smelling liquid. The other is the skeleton of a baby with some monster-ish deformities. Tie that together with a history of twilight killings, and everything just devolves from there.
I actually liked these characters a lot, even though Ford didn’t develop them fully. Henry is the good kid, taking care of his dad and working a job all summer. Russell is a football player, who also happens to be gay. Maggie’s a studious rich girl with parents who’re in Europe all summer. We know them, but we don’t know any of them in detail. They’re more archetypes than people.
What I want most from a horror book is to be scared. The fear and discomfort should build as the book progresses. In this case, I found some of the early chapters to be significantly scarier than the ending. Once the kids start delving into the explanations behind the skeleton and its history, the sizzle left the plot. It plodded along to a conclusion. And by the end I was feeling more meh than yeah.
Ultimately this novella either should have been a short story or a full novel. The former would have forced Ford to tighten his plot. The latter would have allowed for more character studies and possibly more frights. Either way, I wish I could recommend The Twilight Pariah but I can’t.