Hidden Pictures, Jason Rekulak (Flatiron Books 978-1-250-81934-5, $27.99, 384pp, hc) May 2022. Cover by Donna Sinisgalli Noetzel.
Jason Rekulak’s Hidden Pictures is one of those rare horror novels that manages to rake a few tired clichés and turn them into something fresh and incredibly engaging. At once a novel about ghosts, murder, and possession and a narrative that deals with overcoming addiction and finding a way to navigate life once you’ve lost everything, this is the kind of story that shows horror fiction can simultaneously be creepy, pulpy, touching, and smart.
Mallory Quinn has just left rehab and is in the process of rebuilding her life from scratch while trying to keep the demons of addiction away. Part of that process is finding a job, so when she lands one babysitting a five-year-old named Teddy for the summer – a gig that includes a room off the family’s patio in a very expensive neighborhood – she’s both extremely happy and worried. Caroline Maxwell,
Teddy’s mom, works with recovering users, so she’s on Mallory’s side from the start. Teddy’s father is a different story. Despite the tension, Mallory immediately falls in love with Teddy and her work, and falls into a comfortable routine of taking care of Teddy, going for runs around the neighborhood, and watching Hallmark movies on her tablet. Then things start to change.
Teddy is a sweet, shy boy who loves playing with animals, going on walks through the nearby woods, and playing in the pool. He also loves to draw, and his drawings are the first thing that tells Mallory something isn’t quite right. Teddy usually draws stick figures and animals, but then his drawings take a turn and he starts drawing beheaded people, a woman being dragged in the forest, and a dead woman. Then they get darker, and they are way more detailed and sinister than Teddy’s young brain should be able to dream up. Mallory worries about Teddy, but his parents won’t hear of it. When Mallory hears Teddy talking in his room when he’s supposed to be alone and then his drawings get even worse, she becomes convinced there is an entity trying to communicate through the little boy’s drawings, and she decides to get to the bottom of it, putting herself and her job at risk.
There’s a lot to like about Hidden Pictures. However, the most immediate element that grabs readers’ attention is the art that accompanies the book. Teddy’s illustrations are not only mentioned, described, and discussed; they show up in the book. Brilliantly and creepily brought to live by artists Will Staehle and Doogie Horner, Teddy’s drawings are the central piece of the puzzle at the heart of the novel, and seeing them adds a wonderful layer of creepiness to the reading experience. Also, kids drawing creepy things is a horror cliché, but Rekulak manages to position the illustrations at the center of the book in a way that feels new and feeds the mystery Mallory is trying to solve. Breathing new life into old tropes is no easy task, but Rekulak pulled it off brilliantly here.
While the illustrations are great, Hidden Pictures is memorable for two other things: Rekulak’s talent for character development and the wonderful way in which he weaves together genre elements from horror, mystery, and thrillers. Mallory is a complex, troubled character. She’s trying hard to build a new life, but the guilt of a horrible accident in which her little sister died, the broken relationship with her mother, and the lies she finds herself telling a young man she meets and falls for all haunt her. Also, her past troubles are hard to ignore when she starts hearing things and becomes convinced there’s a presence in the house that is possessing Teddy and using his hand to draw the scary images. Throughout the story, she fails and tries again, she lies and then comes clean, she ruins everything, and, instead of quitting or falling into addiction again, she keeps fighting to make things right.
The second element that makes this a standout novel is the seamless way in which the author weaves together all its elements. This is a tale of ghosts, possession, murder, mystery, and messages from beyond the grave. There is everything in here from creepy drawings and a séance with a Ouija board to strange sounds in the woods and a scary passage involving a baby monitor. However, the narrative is also about Mallory’s past and how it affects her present and seems to be the biggest thing keeping her from a great future, the way our psychology can play tricks on us, the way your socioeconomic background seems to dictate the opportunities you receive. There’s even a bit of romance. While these are all very different elements, Rekulak mixes them together well and the end result is a strong, engaging novel that’s about people and their problems as much as it is about ghosts and a terrible story that took place long ago.
Modern horror is all about mixing genres while keeping its dark heart intact, and that’s what Hidden Pictures does. This is a horror novel that’s also a thriller, a mystery, and a story about overcoming the odds and surviving. Rekulak is a talented storyteller, and this one will be one of the biggest horror books of the summer. It deserves all the attention it gets.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.
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