"Behind the Door (A Kathy Ryan Novel)" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Kensington Publishing
Written by Mary SanGiovanni
2018, 190 pages, Fiction
Released on August 28th, 2018
Kathy Ryan is an occult crime specialist who police forces, if they are in the know, contact for help with weird or wacky goings on; everything from the suspected supernatural to ritualistic murders. This character previously appeared in the novel Chills, but Behind the Door heralds a brand-new series where Kathy puts her unique skillset to the test.
I had not read Chills and did not initially realise that Kathy Ryan had featured in an earlier Mary SanGiovanni novel. However, this did not spoil my enjoyment of this new offering, as Kathy does not feature until well into the story, at which point the scene and main characters are already well established. Upon arrival, she does take centre stage, but never truly dominates what is a very enjoyable novel littered with engaging characters.
SanGiovanni has created a clever tale which leans on both Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and in particular the classic MR James short story, The Monkey’s Paw. Actually, if you think of any work which uses the age old moral code: “Be careful what you wish for”, you’re in the correct ball-park. Behind the Door may well have been inspired by earlier classics, but it is no copy, with the author having fun developing characters whose age-old wishes really do return to bite them in their nether regions.
The novel is set in the rural town of Zarepath, which borders New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The town has a secret: deep in the forest there is a Door which magically grants wishes. If not exactly a secret, the locals certainly don’t publicise the fact that if you deliver a handwritten letter to the Door asking for some emotional burden to be lifted, your wish will be granted. The guidelines are passed from person to person: your letter must be sealed with a mixture of wax and your blood, then it must be slid beneath the Door; you then wait for three days and pray your wish is answered for better or worse. However, you have to be very, very careful how you word your letter, otherwise the Door has a way of warping your wish, such as in The Monkey’s Paw. For example, we’re told of a local couple who lost two sons in the Vietnam War. Wishing for them to be brought back to life, two mangled shambling corpses turn up at their doorstep.
This may well be billed as A Kathy Ryan Novel, but the strength of the novel is the believable, sympathetic and damaged characters Mary SanGiovanni brilliantly draws before her arrival. We have Kari, who uses the door to erase the loss of her daughter Jessica; Toby Vernon, a sad and troubled paedophile; and not forgetting a hit-and-run killer with a guilty conscience. All use the Door for their own personal reasons (or demons) with believable back stories constructed to explain the rationalise in their madness.
One of the major themes of the book is secrets, everybody has them. But more often than not, the secret is the reason any particular character requires the need to visit the Door in the first place. In the small town of Zarepath, nobody ever asks anyone else if they used the Door, or why. That would be rude. It’s the equivalent of asking a dude what he was in prison for. Of course, in many cases it is never obvious what the Door’s exact involvement is, such as when a pregnant teenager asks for her unborn child to disappear. It just does, and nobody is any the wiser. The author constructs a clever supernatural tale built upon secrets, lies, guilt and in some cases, revenge.
I don’t want to burden you with spoilers, but something goes wrong with the Door and Kathy is called in to investigate and starts digging into the town’s secrets. Once the wishes once granted start to backfire, there are some outstanding scenes. As the characters are so well developed, many readers may even feel a tad of sympathy for the two paedophiles. Other residents who make a strong impression include the second child molester, Ed Richter, and the retired policeman, Bill Grainger, who has his own skeleton in his closet. Who doesn’t? Nobody in this novel, that’s for sure.
It was not a long book and does not overstay its welcome; however, the weakness is the relative ease in which Kathy solves the mystery. There is plenty of excitement along the way, as the ghosts really do come out to play, but it ends a bit too snugly for me. Still, that’s a minor quibble and I would certainly revisit Kathy Ryan when she returns for the next book in the series. Also, I have previously read Savage Woods by Mary SanGiovanni, but I would suggest this is a much stronger novel purely because it has such a full range of empathic characters which are nicely written into an engaging supernatural tale.