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THE HARROWING - Alexandra Sokoloff
Date of Review: 
Published Work: 
Joe Hartlaub

Alexandra Sokoloff
St. Martin's Press
ISBN-10: 0312357486
ISBN-13: 9780312357481

The fortunes of the horror genre have waned in recent years, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work itself. There have been indications though that this unfortunate state of affairs may be due for a welcome reversal. One such indication is the publication of THE HARROWING by Alexandra Sokoloff.

THE HARROWING builds slowly. However, from the very beginning, there is an uneasy tone to the work, a sense that all is not right, a low-throated holiday hysteria as a dormful of college students prepare for a trip home during a Thanksgiving Day weekend. Those who are left behind include Robin Stone, a withdrawn freshman, a wildflower paired with a southern belle of a roommate who is everything Stone is not. Stone finds herself in the dorm with four other students, each a holiday holdover for different reasons.

Strange things begin happening when one of the students finds a Ouija board, and the uneasy quintet begins to utilize it --- some with skepticism, others with anticipation. What they get is a response that may echo back to a tragedy that occurred in the early years of their university --- or it may be just a prank being played by one of their members. When stray manifestations related to their Thanksgiving séance continue after the holiday, however, one by one the students begin to realize that what started as a harmless parlor pastime designed to ward off boredom may have placed them all in terrible danger.

Sokoloff's background as a screenwriter is evident in THE HARROWING. As is the case with the best writers, she shows rather than tells, letting the subtle but explosive interaction among her characters propel her narrative. Her choice of characters, by the way, is quite intriguing --- an interesting mix of the extroverts (jock, rock 'n' roller) and introverts (wallflower, goth, intellectual) one would have encountered on a college campus 35 years or three minutes ago. Sokoloff knows each of them down to their last individual nuance, integrating the strengths and weaknesses of each into the narrative and ultimately into the climax. She did not draw these characters out of a creative hat; there is a reason why these particular students are present, which is not immediately self-evident.

Sokoloff brings horror archetypes to bear as well within the context of her novel --- think The Breakfast Club meets The Haunting meets…well, that will give too much away. Suffice it to say that even a casual fan of the genre will recognize the archetypal homage that she utilizes within the backdrop of this haunting, and ultimately frightening, tale.

THE HARROWING is more than an impressive debut novel; it is an impressive work, period. I have been reading from this genre for a long time, though the book still gave me nightmares for two nights running. I await, and fear, Sokoloff's next work in equal measure. Highly recommended.

--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub