Man, there just isn't anyone writing novellas anymore, is there?
Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, these interesting specimens seem to get short shrift (no pun intended), at least in the publishing world. Maybe people are writing them by the boatload, but they just aren't a salable format.
Well, I am here to say, the novella is not dead—at least not the way Ahlborn is writing them.
These pieces, both around 150 to 200 pages, pack a killer punch, immersing the reader fully in the world of the main characters without all the messy and entangling structural work that a novel entails. Get right down in the dirt and make some mud, I say. Story, character, chaos—let the fun begin.
And boy, does she.
THE PRETTY ONES
This is a period piece set in New York City, 1977, during the reign of the Son of Sam, a real-life notorious serial killer who went around shooting people, mostly brown-haired women—when they caught him, he said his neighbor's dog told him to do it, no joke, look it up. Anyway, in this story, before he was caught, Nell is a stuffy sort of girl, not very stylish, held back by her brother's strict beliefs about the way girls should look and act, but Nell desperately wants to fit in and make a friend. When she decides to make a change, that's when it all goes wrong.
Of the two, this was my favorite. Don't get me wrong—they are both great—but I am such a sucker for a good period piece. I loved all the little details that made this feel like it was true to NYC of the late 70s, especially for a murderino like me, who happens to know a lot about Son of Sam. A serial killer backdrop for a story is beyond perfect; you know I'm on board from the beginning.
Nell is great character, all her motivations are laid bare on the table for the reader. She holds nothing back; it's like reading her constant mind diary. I enjoyed reading her after the introduction where the author discussed her aspirations of becoming a psychologist that eventually turned into writing instead. I was reading all the characters through this profiling lens and it was interesting to get inside Nell's (and possibly the author's?) head a little bit.
I CALL UPON THEE
Maggie got out of her family's crazy house where so much seemed to go wrong, but now when tragedy strikes, she's forced to return home and confront the shadows of her past and possibly the ones in her closet.
I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that this story had some autobiographical bits in it—or perhaps I was just self-projecting since there were pieces that so mirrored my own experience in my middle school years. Ah well, perhaps it's a story for another day.
In any case, on the surface, this story has a lot of familiar elements (I am being vague here, but I honestly don't want to ruin it for you; the author goes to a lot of trouble to set up this story and I'm not going to be the one to just kick out that careful scaffolding) but what is unsettling is how she takes the familiar and dumps it on its head, putting the reader in unfamiliar territory—the unheimlich, if you like to get Freudian.
All in all, it is a story that is more intricate than it first appears. It has multiple time periods at work, and a lot of the revelations come late in the game, all stacked up on one another. It is a cathartic kind of read, one that would do well if you have a dark and stormy night to cozy up in bed with. Just hope the lights don't go out.
I of course, can't wait to see what's next from Ahlborn. There are not that many women writing horror and doing it well like she is. I love that, it is not only amazing to read, but highly inspiring. I would especially be interested in a short story collection. I have long held the belief that a writer who is a master of short form truly understands how to write—once you have to strip away all the fluff and are only left with the bare bones and stringiest meat of the story, you see what chops a writer really has. If these novellas are any indication, I'd say she has quite a collection of stories to share. And we'd be happy to devour them, raw beating hearts and all.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.