Detail from Gethsemane Hall cover and author photo (Dundurn/twitter)
Spikes of tension. Strong characters. Methodical pacing. These are the hallmarks of good horror. Without these tent poles in place, the story falls apart and becomes an unintentionally comical splatter fest. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Horror writing is not for everyone, but a truly great horror novel needs these well-balanced aspects in order to make the plot really unsettling. Unsettling is often worse than frightening because unsettling sticks with you after you're done reading. Gethsemane Hall achieves that.
A stately manor in the truest sense, Gethsemane Hall is the ancestral home of the Gray family, though the remains of the family have not lived there for years. The current heir, Richard Gray, is a man on a mission doing the work of the Lord in Africa with his equally devout friend Patrick Hudson. Gray's world is destroyed when his faith, and his friendship with Patrick, is challenged by the deaths of his wife and daughter. At the same time, CIA agent Pete Adams dies at Gethsemane Hall while investigating its haunted past, and the stage is set.
At first glance, much of this feels familiar. The haunted mansion with a dubious past. The reluctant heir. The odd occurrences that start to build into something more. Even the cast of believers and non-believers has a familiar ring to it until the CIA joins the fray, both in the death of Pete Adams but also through CIA agent Louise Meacham, who has been sent by the agency to cover it up. She is the locus of the cynical aspect of the story, the defacto head of the team there to debunk the myths.
The inclusion of the CIA in this story makes it more unsettling. Anytime the CIA is involved in a story, regardless of the genre, there is a sense that nothing is what it seems and that something deeper is going on. Between the CIA, the cynics, the spiritualists and the devout Christians, Annandale has provided the reader with a solid cast that both fits the horror conventions they emulate while improving upon them.
Beyond the characters, the tension and pacing of Gethsemane Hall move hand-in-hand from the first words on page one. The first nine chapters are spent introducing us to the main characters, unifying them with the story and sending them into the Hall. Additionally, the reader is educated in the various, contradictory facts that make up the Hall's history from each character's unique perspective.
The portion of the book leading up to the team's entrance to the Hall at the beginning of Chapter Ten would have been the easiest part of the story to let fall into the trap of heavy exposition. The author avoids that, showing rather than telling as the characters coagulate at the front gates of Gethsemane Hall. The introductions are conducted through effective examples and depictions of their lives prior to being recruited on this mission.
At its core, Gethsemane Hall is an exploration of religious faith versus cynicism versus spiritual belief in the face of unexplained phenomena. Each of the main characters, excluding Richard Gray, falls immediately into one of those categories and has their belief structure thoroughly tested if not destroyed by the events that follow. Gray, on the other hand, can be defined by either none or all of these titles, the exception that proves the rule for all three ideologies at the same time.
It is an ensemble cast of believers, skeptics and those somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but Gray is the focus of the story. As readers, we are immediately forced to wonder what the sudden death of his family has truly done to him and his faith as well as what impact that has had on the occurrences at the Hall. His true motivations are seemingly oblique until the dying moments of the story, as they should be:
"They'd left him [Gray]. He was alone with the Hall for the first time since the investigation had begun. Surrounded by the night, he turned to face the house. It stared back at him, and it was not impassive. Its eyes, lit from within, were eager. So was he. He charged up for a fight, could feel the tension thrum of victory, even if he didn't know why. He was winning the war."
Gethsemane Hall is a cerebral sort of horror, briefly hinting at what's to come with only visceral moments of violence and blood to punctuate the unsettling tone that hangs over each word. The tension spikes suddenly at appropriate, organic moments that never feel forced or tacked on out of necessity. You feel a similar pacing when reading the works of comparable authors such as John R. Little or Sean Costello, though the similarities are more indicative of the genre than the disturbingly unique narrative of Gethsemane Hall.
Even as you read the text, there is no obvious solution to the mystery. This is not a predictable, expository story nor is it a simple mystery to unravel. The questions continue to build as the story goes on in conjunction with the growth, or deconstruction, of the characters and comes to what is simply a disturbingly satisfying conclusion. Like all good horror, Gethsemane Hall plays tricks on the mind as you read before it decides to let you walk away.