I love ghost stories. REAL ghost stories. Not the ones where the dead boyfriend’s ghost tries to enlist his girlfriend through a medium to find his killer. I want a ghost story that involves a ticked-off haunt that sends people through windows, practices decapitations, and gets some measure of revenge over and over again from those who did it wrong. I want a ghost story that scares me, even after five decades of reading them. And did I mention that only a ghost story in a paperback book will do? That’s what I was weaned on and that’s what I want. It’s just how it is. Accordingly, I was overjoyed when I cracked open THE KILLING ROOM by John Manning, which meets these qualifications and more than fulfills all expectations. Especially scary. By the time I finished reading it, there was nothing left of me but a pile of clothes and a pair of shoes. If you know what I mean.
THE KILLING ROOM is a genre book that is as good as it gets. It is somewhat reminiscent in spirit of those gothic horror novels that were prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the dark covers that featured night scenes of old, run-down mansions with one light on in a corner upstairs room, yet with a modern, graphically violent atmosphere. Carolyn Cartwright is a private investigator and ex-FBI agent whose cases have a slightly unusual twist. Her reputation results in her retention by Howard Young, a near-centenarian financier who has accumulated more money than George Soros and who has a unique, if horrific, problem. Young’s family gathers at the family mansion every 10 years for a mandatory lottery. Each family member’s name is placed in a hat, with one being drawn. The “winner” is required to spend the night in a basement room. No one --- with one important exception --- has ever emerged from the room alive.
The scheduled reunion date is fast approaching as THE KILLING ROOM begins, and Young wants to prevent the perennial tragedy from occurring again. Cartwright, almost from her first meeting with Young, has the feeling that he knows more than he’s letting on about what has occurred at the old house, which is loaded with secrets and spirits, including an attractive, dark-haired woman who is frequently seen around the grounds of the mansion, a crying baby who appears and vanishes at will, and a mysterious, menacing figure with a deadly pitchfork. These apparitions appear to other family members away from the mansion as well, so that by the time the family gathers for its deadly lottery, everyone is at a hairpin level of anxiety.
Cartwright is menaced by a phantom of her own, consisting of a former boyfriend who, it turns out, is a serial killer and has seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. Cameron finds a love interest at the house in the person of Douglas Young IV, Howard’s great-grandnephew. Douglas IV is a bit of a rebellious spirit who eschews the family’s considerable wealth in favor of an unencumbered lifestyle, and is a bit refreshing when compared to his uncles and cousins, who consider Howard to be more of an obstacle to their sizable inheritance than a beloved relative. It is unlikely, though, that Douglas IV will live to see any inheritance, given that his familial line has always fared poorly in the once-a-decade lottery. As the scheduled night fast approaches, Cartwright races against time to determine the cause of the homicidal haunting and how to stop it. Little does she know, however, that there are several forces working against her, and not all of them are supernatural.
Do not miss THE KILLING ROOM. It is one of the best straight-up horror thrillers to come down the chute in a while, full of memorable scenes and unforgettable characters. And keep the nitro pills at the ready while you read the second half of the book. You’re going to need them.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 28, 2011