Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Ash House

Walker, Angharad. The Ash House
February 2nd 2021 by Chicken House
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

A boy is in the hospital with extreme back pain. There's always a vague diagnosis when his foster parents take him to the doctor, but after the last bout, he's taken by car out into the countryside and left at the creepy Ash House. There are no adults around, just Dom, who shows the boy around. He can no longer remember his name, but is named Solitude, Sol for short, after a "Niceness". There are a lot of "nicenesses" that Dom tells him about; things that the Headmaster wants the dozen or so children in residence to keep in mind. They live in a broken down green house, are dressed in rags, and wait for a daily phone call from the Headmaster, who has been gone for three years. After Sol's appearance, the Headmaster does not call, and the group is thrown into confusion. They keep up with their assigned tasks, including feeding ravening creatures named Shucks, go to lessons, and pick up groceries down the road. Sol knows this is all highly unusual, and wants some answers, but none are forthcoming. He does get some relief from his pain when the group go and bathe in the lake that is filled with Ash. The Ash House is a huge myseter; the walls seem to be burning, and the air is filled with ash, but no one knows why or how. The mysteries increase. There are drones and surveillance films of the area that are collected, and a child named Clemency has apparently asked too many questions and died. Again, few answers emerge for Sol. When the phone rings again, it is the Doctor, who comes to help Sol. An operation takes away his pain but leaves him paralyzed, and conditions do not improve. The chidlren decide that they must do something before another of their number is killed by the Doctor. Will they be able to survive?

This was a strange and unsettling book, and the closet thing to which I can compare it is Gemeinhart's Scar Island. Children alone, in an eerie location, dealing with forces they don't understand, trying to make sense of it all sort of defies description. The cover makes this look like a horror story, and in some ways it is, but it is also devoid of a lot of typical horror elements. The Shucks would be the one foray into dangerous beasts. This definitely falls on the side of psychological horror titles like Alender's The Companion and Ventresca's Black Flowers, White Lies.

The characters drive a lot of this, put are interestingly underdeveloped. Sol doesn't really know who he is, and doesn't remember the past trauma that might be causing his pain. Even his pain is an unquantifiable thing-- he suffers from it, then he doesn't, then the removal of it causes him to suffer more, but then there are pages where it's not a part of his experience at all, because there are other pressing questions. Dom wants to help, but he is also frightened of the new arrival. Children move around in the background like shadows, and we're never quite sure who or what is real. 

There is a lot that is unknown in this book, which is a source of horror for young readers. Where does the food come from? Where are the adults? Did Clemency really die? Does the Doctor have any medical knowledge? And how does this end, exactly? All of these elements add up to a very atmospheric loo at survival and friendship. Hand this to readers who are intrigued by Ransom Riggs' work but want a stand alone with an uneasy, creepy story.

That said, I don't think I would have bought this book. Now that I have a copy, I'll put it in my collection, but I'm not sure who will read it. My fear is that kids will pick it up because of the super creepy cover, then find it a bit slow and return it. We'll see. 

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