Review: Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz

welcometothedarkhouseI have always been a fan of the horror genre–books, movies, TV shows–and my motto (mantra?) is the gorier, the better. And so I was delighted that my request to read Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz had been accepted. Although I am aware of the Blue is for Nightmares  and Touch series, this is the first of Stolarz’s books I have read.

Note to potential readers: spoilers ahead….

When Ivy Jensen was twelve years old, her parents were brutally murdered by a serial killer who then visited her bedroom but left her (physically) unharmed that fateful night. At 18, Ivy has a new name, a new home, and a new loving family, but despite intensive therapy she still has the same old nightmare about the killer coming back for her. After receiving some contest emails from “The Nightmare Elf,” the newsletter of a popular horror franchise, Ivy puts her nightmare into writing, even though she is not a fan of director Justin Blake or horror movies in general. Of course, she is one of the seven contest winners, and the group is assembled at Blake’s mansion for an unforgettable weekend–or so they think. The mansion is filled with homages to Blake’s films, and  the servants are dressed as iconic characters. The winners’ first night of getting to know each other turns into a night of terror, with missing persons and cryptic messages, but none of the teens witnesses any crimes, so they think it might all be part of the act while they wait to meet the master of horror.

The next day, the group is driven to a remote location, where an amusement park has been set up to honor Blake’s work. There are themed rides for each of his films, as well as a ride for each winner–tailor-made to match his or her worst nightmare. It is not long before Ivy and the others figure out that it is not Justin Blake that is behind this contest, but a madman who is filming everything and has designed the rides to kill. To survive, the teens must not only remain alive until morning, but each must conquer his or her uniquely-designed attraction.

The plot of the novel will be familiar ground for fans of the genre. Teens are assembled for a weekend and picked off one by one by a calculating killer in a variety of gruesome ways. Stolarz spends time building the background of Justin Blake, his catalog of films, and his creepy characters–so much so that it seems like a true horror franchise. The mansion and elaborate theme park are richly drawn, providing a great backdrop for terror. The rides at the park are diabolical, not only because they focus on each teen’s fear, but also because readers won’t be able to stop nervously thinking about and wishing for a way out, even though it’s obvious that won’t happen.

Although the novel is told from the multiple perspectives of the contest winners, Ivy is clearly the main character, narrating the bulk of the book. The development of the other characters varies. For example, Shayla Belmont and Garth Vader are the stereotypical rich girl and goth guy, respectively, and don’t receive much depth of treatment. Even Ivy’s love-interest, Parker Bradley, who faked his nightmare and wants to be a film director, receives little embellishment–although his chapters are written in an interesting screenplay style. Natalie Sorrento, on the other hand, is not only a huge fan of Blake’s (with the tattoos to prove it) but also a very troubled girl who pulls out her hair and talks to her dead brother, and readers get to know her very well. This type of character development is not surprising for the genre–many horror books and films rely on building up the character who survives at the end, while the other victims serve as an end to the killer’s (and author’s) means. It puts me in mind of my husband’s requirements for an action movie: guns, explosions, cheesy one-liners, intensity–he’s not expecting Gone With the Wind.

And that brings us to the ending. Ivy and Parker are the only ones to (barely) survive their theme park rides. After their sadistic captor shows them footage of their friends’ demises, the two struggle, exhausted and bleeding, to make it to the front gates in the ten seconds allotted by their captor.  Ivy makes it out; Parker doesn’t.  After he begs for her to leave him behind and go for help, she does so reluctantly and, of course, when help arrives Parker and the bodies of the others are nowhere to be found. What happened to them? Who is the killer? We never find out. A small part of me wants to believe it is Parker–he wanted to be a director after all–but I wonder how a teen could bankroll such an endeavor let alone pull it off. The good news is that Welcome to the Dark House is book one of a series, so maybe we’ll find out in the next installment….

In all, Welcome to the Dark House will make an excellent addition to my school libraries this fall and will be thoroughly enjoyed by horror fans in junior high–and in high school as well.

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