Female body objectification by a female author, or, Why I Did Not Like "Welcome to the Dark House"
Let us begin with a simple statement: I like scary books. I also like scary movies and TV shows--but not the tacky, gory kind. More like the mind-bending X-Files kind. Also, I mean, Fox Mulder, but I digress.
If a scary book has well-drawn characters and palpable suspense, it kind of doesn't matter how goofy the nominal premise of the horror is. I mean, if you say, "Hey, I just read a book about an evil hotel!" it sounds a bit silly. But, if you reframe that as, "I just read a book about an alcoholic father's descent into madness and ultimate redemption triggered by an evil hotel," that sounds a bit better. That's The Shining, by the way.
Unfortunately, the teen horror of which I've received ARCs lately has very little to recommend it. I thought Laurie Faria Stolarz's Welcome to the Dark House would be different. Naturally, I was wrong.
It's not even so much the actual horror part that put me off--that had the potential of being cheesy yet readable. The premise is that a character/web personality called "The Nightmare Elf" sets up an essay contest for teens. Winners will spend a weekend, all expenses paid, at a retreat themed around the works of a famous horror movie director, and they will also get to see a sneak peek of his new project.
The first character we meet, Ivy, is the most realistic of all the teens. She's haunted by recurring nightmares triggered by a tragedy in her past: a serial killer broke into her home, killed her parents, and was about to kill her when the cops arrive. In her dreams, however, the killer succeeds in stabbing her as well. She's haunted by this, and even a crazy-yet-fun family life with some neo-hippies can't exorcise these demons. So, she writes her story down and sends it to the Nightmare Elf with a strange, desperate hope that he'll make the nightmares go away.
This is where I say something utterly cliché, like, "But the nightmare has just begun."
Now that that's out of my system, here's what goes wrong: pretty much everything else. There are seven teens who win the contest and go to this house in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota. The story is narrated by six of them. Even barring the poor formatting of my e-ARC, I could not tell the difference between any of the characters' voices. Not a one. To say it was confusing is to be polite.
My main beef, however, comes from the strange descriptions of the girls in this book. I think the author was trying to establish that the guy characters are creepazoids, but there is repeated body objectification and visual undressing. Here are just a few samples:
"I could see her reflection in the widow glass. Her dark blond hair was pulled back from her face, accentuating her wide green eyes, her pinched nose, and her perfectly pouted lips. Perfectly balanced features." Beauty isn't everything, except for when it is.
Another girl has "angular cheeks, a pinched nose, a high forehead, and a perfectly pointed chin. Plus, her lips look naturally full." Evidently a "pinched nose" is attractive?
Ivy "sits down on Taylor's bed and the vee of her dress opens ever so slightly, exposing three solid inches of plump ivory skin." Did I fall into a bodice-ripper?
"I put my mental video camera away, zeroing in on the silhouette of her body beneath the thin cotton sundress--her curvy hips, her narrow wist, and the soft mounds of her chest. It's almost too much to handle, and I don't quite know where to look."
Why would you write this? Why would you do this over and over and over again and never point out how utterly wrong and disgusting it is? By writing this, you tell boys that it's normal to look at girls as solely sexual objects and not as, you know, other people.
I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley. All quotes are from the uncorrected proof and are subject to change.