I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters
Published by Dark House Press on February 29 2016
Genres: Adult, Horror
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The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric and eerie ghost story with psychological undertones that make this a satisfying horror story on several levels.
The house held only broken dreams, shattered screams, and secret little dirty things. It was a liar’s playground, a dead man’s last stand.
I was pleasantly surprised by Damian Angelica Walters’ short story collection Sing Me Your Scars, full of visceral and at times hard to read horror stories about pain and loss, and so I jumped at the chance to read her debut novel. Dark House Press is a new-to-me publisher, but I guarantee this won’t be the last time I read one of their books. Even the ARC of Paper Tigers is beautifully produced and designed, and I can tell the finished product is going to be gorgeous. And what’s between the covers? Well, it’s just as impressive. Once again, Walters’ lovely poetic voice mixes with her themes of despair and loneliness to create an unusual and terrifying haunted house story, one with an added layer of psychological horror. I’ll tell you one thing for sure: I’m never going to look at an old photo album the same way again…
Alison was happily engaged to be married, when a terrible apartment fire changed her life. Trapped in the burning building, she lost an eye and two fingers, and her body is now covered with disfiguring and painful scars. Trying to cope after the fire, Alison lives by herself with only her mother and her physical therapist to keep her company. She calls herself “Monstergirl” because of her scarred body, and she has stopped leaving her apartment during the day. Instead, she ventures out only at night, prowling the streets near her home and mourning her past life.
On one such night walk, she spies an old photo album in the window of a thrift shop, and on impulse decides to buy it (the shopkeeper just happens to be there at three in the morning—just go with it!). When she brings it home, odd things start to happen. Alison smells tobacco smoke and the scent of flowers wafting up through the pages, and the man in the photo on the cover seems to be trying to communicate with her. And then one day, she literally tumbles down into the photo and lands in an unfamiliar house filled with cobwebs and shadows. Alison doesn’t understand why she’s able to visit the house in the photos of the album, but one thing is clear: when she returns to her own time and place, her disfigurements have miraculously healed.
As she gets to know the shadowy people in the “paper house” as she calls it, Alison is drawn in by a sinister man named George, who promises to make her whole and beautiful again, if only she will stay with him. Caught between her desire to be normal once more, and her increasing fear of being trapped in the photo forever, Alison must face her fears and decide if she can embrace being Monstergirl.
In her last book, Walters’ stories were full of graphic violence and disturbing imagery of bodies being cut into and changed for nefarious purposes. This time around, the horror is less graphic but no less disturbing. The terrifying landscape is mostly in Alison’s mind—her memories of the fire and her isolation because of her scars and injuries. Before she even introduces the weirdness of the photo album, Walters makes sure Alison is already in a bad place and barely able to function in normal society, and then she literally throws her down a different kind of rabbit hole (and yes, I think the name “Alison” was intentional) where she’s given a glimpse of what life would be like if she weren’t Monstergirl.
Walters’ prose creates a sense of creeping terror, as she slowly reveals the evil force inside the photo album. I loved the escalating feeling of dread as Alison slowly begins to realize just how dangerous it is inside the photos. And if you’re wondering about the details of Alison’s horrible experience in the fire, you won’t find out until much later in the story exactly what happened to her. The author divides her tale into sections, each one beginning with a small peek into the nightmare behind Alison’s injuries, so by the end of the story the reader has a clear (and upsetting) picture of just what happened.
For most of the story, Alison is alone, which was another reason this story worked so well. If you’ve ever been alone with your own thoughts, and I’m sure many of us have, you’ll know just how quickly your head space can become a frightening place to be. And we get to hear each thought in Alison’s head, as she must decide how to handle the strange situation she’s in. Other than the ghostly figures in the photo album, Alison’s only other contact with another human is with her mother, a kind and nurturing woman who wants nothing more than to see her daughter happy again. And as much as Alison loves her, you can tell she’s also stifled by her mother’s never ending ministrations.
My favorite parts of the story were the ones where Alison goes into the photos. She thinks of the photo album as a “paper tiger,” hence the title of the book, who will “swallow you whole.” At first, Alison is charmed by the parties, glittering candles, and the swirl of party dresses she encounters in the house. But it’s not too long before she realizes that the people there are merely ghosts and echoes of the past, and that something—or someone—has trapped them forever in this odd, paper realm. In addition to the horror story that’s going on inside Alison’s head, Walters uses one of the scariest tropes in horror fiction—trying to get rid of an object that keeps coming back—to great effect.
As for the ending? Well, of course I’m not going to spoil that for you, but I will say I loved it, and I can’t imagine this story ending any other way. Paper Tigers is an excellent example of the type of psychological horror that will get under your skin and stay there.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.