I don't know if I've ever been as viscerally scared by a kids' book before as I was while reading The Inn Between, and I'm not sure if I ever wanted to be. If I'm looking for horror, I generally don't say to myself, "Aha! A children's book! This will scare the pants off of me!" Yet, here I am: utterly freaked out and metaphorically pantsless.
Horror novels are difficult to review insomuch as what frightens one person may not bother another in the slightest. However, I believe certain novels resonate with many people and become classics because they touch on universal fears, like losing one's sanity or being betrayed by someone you love. The most effective horror novels are also the most human; forget hordes of aliens or giant spiders or haunted machinery. There are things deep inside of us, dark, wretched, loathsome things, that make being trapped with an evil clown a walk in the park (but evil clown is really high up on the Things That Freak Pam Out list). The Inn Between plumbs those depths, pulling from works like Dante's Inferno and Stephen King's The Shining to create a book that is, perhaps, a bit more frightening than I'd expect. Okay, a LOT more frightening. It's like answering the door and instead of Girl Scouts selling cookies, you've got Charon waiting to drag you into Hell. Or at least an evil clown.
Even now, it's hard for me to articulate exactly what it was about this book that was so frightening. Part of it is that Quinn, the main character, is so young--eleven years old. She has already lost her sister, and now her best friend Kara is moving away. She joins the Cawston family as they drive cross-country to California, but after an interesting meal at Norm's Diner, darkness comes quickly. The only lodgings can be found at the Inn Between, slogan: "We've been expecting you." With a receptionist named Persephone and a hulking doorman named Aides, you know this isn't going to end well.
So, I guess the idea of a family staying in a hotel full of dead people or people who are ready to die or maybe people who are already dead (we don't know the condition of the guests until the end of the book) is what unsettled me, particularly because the characters are completely in the dark about the danger they are in. My first guess was that Quinn was already dead, especially since she kept talking about her missing sister (were they both kidnapped and murdered?). After a creepy first night, during which Quinn sees Mrs. Cawston disappear and leave behind a pool of blood, the girls and Kara's brother Josh awaken to find both parents gone. Persephone feeds them a line about their van having broken down, and encourages them to explore the pool. Which is inhabited by some sort of invisible underwater monster.
And then there's the matter of the elevator. Guests are strongly encouraged to use the stairs. The only guests who use the elevator are ones who are very, very ill, like that elderly man who is ready to meet his family. Yes, that's right, Hades and Persephone have an elevator that takes you either to heaven or to hell. Check out that ambiance!
After Josh disappears, the girls run from the hotel staff and take the elevator down to the basement. Here, they are tempted by the devil in the disguise of Quinn's missing sister Emma, and see lots and lots and lots of tortured souls. My, isn't that a cheery thought!
Perhaps part of my unease comes from the fact that I don't believe in hell, and I don't think it's something kids should be taught: "You're going to hell if you don't eat your peas. You're going to hell if you don't love Jesus." It seems so cruel to me. So to actually send two living girls to the underworld in this book was downright terrifying.
The ending of the book makes total sense now that I've gone back and reread the first few chapters, but it will take some readers by surprise.
The missing sister subplot, which revolves around Quinn's cheating on a test, didn't really fit in with the rest of the story. The implication is that Emma, Quinn's younger sister, was kidnapped one day because Quinn cheated on a test, had detention, and sent Emma home alone. What are the odds that a kidnapper would be hanging around, waiting for Quinn to leave her sister? If Quinn had been there, would the kidnapper have taken both of them? How can her parents blame her for something that's clearly not her fault? The implication is that Quinn's sin of lying killed Emma, and now she must do her penance. Which, whoa, is also an extremely dark idea for kids.
Then again, what do I know? They read Deathly Hallows. They know life is not all rainbows and unicorns and superheroes. What I can say for sure is that I don't ever want to feel this unsettled by a kids book again. Ever.
But if stories about creepy hotels with the Outlook Hotel-esque twisting hallways, staffed by the lord and lady of the dead, and with an elevator that goes to hell don't bother you, be my guest. We've been expecting you.
I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.