Source: Review copy
Publication: 5th October 2021 from Bloomsbury
Most people didn’t make it to Cell Six, he said. Most called out the safe word – reprieve – after the first Cell. It was that intense.
When Bryan, Jaidee, Victor and Jane team up to compete at a full-contact escape room, it seems simple. Hold your nerve through six terrifying challenges; collect all the red envelopes; win a huge cash prize.
But the real horror is unfolding outside of the game, in a series of deceits and misunderstandings fuelled by obsession and prejudice. And by the end of the night, one of the contestants will be dead.
A startlingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism, and seamlessly threads together trial transcripts, evidence descriptions, and deeply layered individual narratives to present a chilling portrait of American life.
I’ll be honest, at first I wasn’t sure what this book was. I knew it had elements of horror but to begin with I thought perhaps it was a YA novel. Not that it would have been a problem; I just couldn’t quite work out what sort of book I was reading. As a consequence, I found it quite slow to get into.
The author takes us to the American mid-West in the 1997. In Lincoln, Nebraska, four people have reached the final cell in a house of horrors that subjects teams of four contestants to six levels or cells of challenge in a game where full contact is the order of the day and first aid kits are provided in every room.
The house is legendary amongst gamers and few ever make it through to claim the grand prize. We know from the outset that someone is dead and who has killed them. The intrigue comes from understanding who these people are, what has brought them to the house and how each has their own secrets and insecurities that has led them to what is frankly, a dilapidated, seedy attraction run by a man of doubtful repute.
Reprieve is a dark story. Not because it is a slasher fest, though there are the trappings of that, but rather because this book is a look at how the attitudes and morals of contemporary society drive people towards the need to feel and experience emotion in a world where people seek out extreme experiences in order to achieve that.
Quigley House is owned and run by the seedy John Quigley and is a full-contact horror experience where competitors compete against actors and a range of contrived special effects to find envelopes and thence progress from cell to cell, with each cell’s envelopes getting increasingly harder to find. The few who make it through to the end without using the safe word – ‘reprieve’ – will win a cash prize of an enviable $40,000
Reprieve concentrates on the profiles of the four contestants in the competing team and considers who they are and how they came to be together alongside transcripts from the courtroom proceedings where someone is on trial for murder.
This book works because the characterisation is insightful and has real depth. Kendra a young black teen has been dragged by her mother from Washington to Lincoln, Nebraska after the death of her father. Moving to Lincoln, in what is hardly the most diverse of US states- Kendra has to leave behind a burgeoning romance and the only friends she has to move to a city where she feels out of place. Her cousin Bryan, a University student, is her only touchstone in a world of unknowns. Bryan shares a dorm room with Jaidee Charoensuk, a Thai from Kanchanaburi, in the west of Thailand and best known for being the location of Bridge on the River Kwai. Jaidee feels driven to fit in to this mid-west American culture and goes to serious lengths in order to do so but his efforts only make him the object of derision as he fails time and time again to ‘assimilate’. His journey to the west from Thailand has been prompted by his experience of being taught English by Victor Dunlap, now a bank manager but once a teacher of English in Jaidee’s home town. The fourth contestant is Victor’s fiancée, Jane.
Reprieve is chilling and plays on all the classic horror tropes while exploring a range of attitudes and insecurities that worm their way into the psyche of these somewhat beaten down people. Then there’s the house owner, John Quigley, a creepy man whose bonhomie is patently false and whose motives are deeply suspect. When he befriends Leonard Grandton, a hotel manager, Leonard’s hitherto happy relationship implodes and he finds himself on a downward spiral that leads to some pretty gross and needy behaviour.
Reprieve is a novel about the American psyche and reading it gives an insight into how easy it was for Trump to rise to power amid a welter of prejudice and rampant insecurities which can easily take root and be taken advantage of, especially in what are referred to as the ‘flyover states’. Reprieve explores themes of racial fetishism in what is rightly a very uncomfortable way and there are echoes in here too of the dehumanisation that makes it all too easy to scapegoat outsiders.
Verdict: Though it’s not easily pigeonholed and sometimes the narrative is a little diffracted, Reprieve is a clever and tense read that plays on the classic horror tropes to produce an intelligent novel that has depth and insight and challenges the reader to think about cultural stereotypes. I’m not sure it is always successful as a riveting read, but it is unquestionably thought provoking and immersive.
James Han Mattson was born in Seoul, Korea and raised in North Dakota. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has received grants from the Copernicus Society of America and Humanities North Dakota. He has been a featured storyteller on The Moth, and has taught at the University of Iowa, the University of Cape Town, the University of Maryland, the George Washington University, Murray State University, and the University of California – Berkeley. In 2009, he moved to Korea and reunited with his birth family after 30 years of separation.He is the author of two novels: The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves (Little A: 2017) and Reprieve. He is currently the fiction editor of Hyphen Magazine.