House of Skin by Jonathan Janz

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Publisher: Flame Tree Press | Release Date: May 30, 2019 | Pages: 304

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flame Tree Press’ Year of Janz continues with this latest reissue of Jonathan Janz’s House of Skin. In it, aspiring author Paul Carver moves into a large estate bequeathed to him by his uncle. If you’re at all familiar with Janz’s brand of horror, you’ll know right away there’s plenty more going on, and the scintillating title alone is a dead giveaway to that! Adjoining the house is the family cemetery, going back several generations. Visiting the cemetery inspires Paul to begin writing his first novel, although he has little control over the subject matter. In fact, he doesn’t recall writing it at all, having produced an entire book in trance-like fashion. Then there’s the matter of Julia, the gorgeous girl next door who has plenty of secrets of her own, and the entire town of Shadeland, which harbors a grudge against the Carvers for reasons entirely unknown to Paul.

House of Skin was the first novel Janz wrote, although if I recall correctly it was his second published after The Sorrows at the now-defunct Samhain Publishing. Janz entered the horror scene earlier this decade pretty damn well formed as an author, and while it’s safe to say he’s improved in the intervening years since House of Skin first debuted back in 2012, it speaks highly of the author’s natural talent at crafting a mighty fine story. With Flame Tree Press having acquired publishing rights to the entirety of Janz’s out-of-print backlist, now being republished in monthly installments, it’s telling that earlier works like this can stand strongly alongside more recent releases like The Siren and The Specter and The Dark Game.

Much of the plot elements here will be familiar to Janz’s devotees, and it’s interesting to me to see the author approaching gothic horror elements similar to those he would explore, elaborate upon, and refine in subsequent works. You’ve got the large house, a buried history being unwittingly uncovered, whirlwind romances, graphic violence, and dark sexual depravities underpinning it all. Janz clearly has an abiding affection for gothic horror and with House of Skin he puts his own spin on it. It’s not quite as developed as last year’s The Siren and The Specter, but it’s still a damn good page-turner that presents some singularly horrifying elements and spectacular shocks. There’s a scene very late in the book involving maggots that made me blanch and shudder…trust me, you’ll know it when you get there, and a day later it’s still giving me the heebie jeebies. Janz also crafts a few neat haunted house scenes, such as a shower that goes terribly awry, which I would have liked to have gotten more of.

As usual, Janz is just as adept at crafting complex characters as he is at making readers squirm. Paul is a complicated sort, and his journey of discovery is a satisfying one. He’s an Everyman sort, gifted with an Everyman’s fantasy. Who among us hasn’t wished from time to time for some unknown distant relative to kick the bucket and leave you with enough money to be set for life and a gorgeous massive estate to live out your days at? Personally, as somebody whose student loans recently came out of deferment and re-entered repayment status, on top of a mortgage and two kids in daycare, plus the usual score of bills and expenses, I sure as hell could go for some easy money and a free mansion! Janz takes a common daydream and flips it on its head, violently reminding us there’s no such thing as a free ride. Although Paul is the lucky recipient of what looks like an incredible inheritance, he’s also a bit of a sad sack who has been carried along in life by others. Being endowed with the Carver estate is his first chance to finally break away from the immediate family holding him down and discover who he really is. He takes up running, loses flab and builds muscle, and begins writing, something he’s always wanted to do but never actually did. His circumstances eventually beggar the question of just how in control he really is, or if he’s just another pawn being led toward desires not his own.

Questions of control arise pretty regularly in House of Skin, and Janz does some terrific work quietly altering people’s behaviors and shifting personalities to illustrate their unconscious bowing to external demands and the pressures of an ancient and evil other. More importantly, Janz himself maintains a firm control over the narrative. There’s a richness to the story here, thanks to a few decades worth of history that slowly unravels over the course of the book, as well as a shared relationships between several prominent characters and their relationship with the Carver estate and the family that lived there previously.

House of Skin has plenty of rich, dark meat on its bones, and Janz gives us lots to chew on along the way. For new readers, it’s also an excellent entry point into Janz’s oeuvre, particularly the more overtly gothic horror stories that have become an overarching staple in his growing body of work.