Alexandra Sokoloff’s novels flirt, entrance and seduce.
Yes, they have elements of suspense, horror and, of course,
romance. But unlike many works of fiction that skirt the borders of
the horror genre or embrace it wholeheartedly, Sokoloff gently
(and, on occasion, not so gently) nudges her reader into that
bright, airy room with the crisp sheets and the partner with eyes
so full of promise. It isn’t until the spiders stop dropping
on your bare back that you realize maybe all is not as it seems,
even though the webs here and there should have given you plenty of
Sokoloff’s work is much closer to Shirley Jackson’s
than to Craig Spector’s; I was especially put in the mind of
the former’s work while reading THE UNSEEN, Sokoloff’s
latest novel. It is not that Sokoloff treads the territory that
Jackson explored so well; rather, Sokoloff is both completing the
work that Jackson left undone while expanding the boundaries that
Jackson staked out. Thus, when you read this book, please remember
my opening remarks.
The first third of THE UNSEEN entrances. We watch how Dr. Laurel
MacDonald, a professor of psychology, catches her fiancée in a
leg-lock with a graduate student and immediately moves herself and
her emotional baggage to Durham, North Carolina, where she has
accepted a teaching position at Duke University. Mindful of the
publish-or-perish maxim, MacDonald is struggling for a book topic
when she stumbles upon the records of the Rhine ESP experiments
that were conducted at Duke. MacDonald feels a strange draw to the
research that was done, and more so when she discovers that her
uncle, a gentle if odd recluse, appears to have some vague
abilities of his own in the realm.
While setting up her story, Sokoloff describes Durham and the
Duke campus with an appreciative and practiced eye; she is one of
those rare authors who not only can make you fall in love with a
locale but also compel you to jump into an automobile for a road
trip to check it out for yourself. Sokoloff additionally provides
MacDonald with a potential romantic interest in the form of fellow
professor Brendan Cody, a burning flame that MacDonald flits around
without being singed.
Which brings us to the second third of THE UNSEEN. The research
of the professorial pair uncovers something referred to as the
Folger House, a bizarre, long-abandoned structure that is not one
house, but three joined together in the North Carolina countryside.
Something happened in the Folger House that has been hidden in the
mists of time, involving death, insanity, disappearances and, at
the heart of it all, the apparent manifestation of a poltergeist.
MacDonald and Cody, with a couple of oversexed and immature
graduate students who have scored well above average in ESP
testing, move into Folger House hoping to awaken whatever, or
whoever, is within, in order to prove, once and for all, the
existence of poltergeist activity.
This brings us to the final third of THE UNSEEN, and the
seduction. Folger House reveals its secrets slowly and with some
reluctance at first, but the manifestations come fast and
furiously. That quartet is in terrible danger, and from more than
one source. By the time all that can be revealed is revealed,
Sokoloff has provided a new and interesting twist to the genre, one
that will stay with the reader long after the book has been
Sokoloff is a quiet, understated master of the art of taking
short, almost toss-off scenes and making them unforgettable. She
performs this magic a number of times here: not to reveal anything,
but one vignette involves silverware, another footprints, and yet
another a puddle of water. The hair on the back of my neck may
never lay down. The footprint scene, in particular, is understated,
yet in its own way is as frightening as the encounter with the twin
girls in the hallway of the Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING. If you
are unfamiliar with Sokoloff’s work, THE UNSEEN is a great
place to begin.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011