The Return by Rachel Harrison

March 24, 2020


The Return

by Rachel Harrison
March 24, 2020 · Berkley

Oh guys, I cannot handle creepy books, and this was a creepy book, and not a romance, and also gross and scary. It was also a book that I devoured in a single day and could not get out of my mind. I was sold on this book by the promise of feminist horror, and that’s what I got, so if feminist horror is your jam then you will probably like this book about four friends and a very bad hotel.

Once upon a time, Mae, Molly, Elise, and Julie became friends at college. They don’t have much in common other than finely honed sarcasm skills and trauma in their past. Of the four friends, Elise (the book’s narrator) and Julie are the closest. So when Julie disappears while on a hike and is presumed dead, Elise is sure that Julie is still alive. Surely, Elise thinks, she would feel it if Julie died. Points to Elise, because two years after disappearing Julie turns up with our old friend amnesia (or, as I like to say, AMNESIA!). Shortly after Julie’s return, Mae and Molly decide that what they all need is a weekend at a kitschy resort in the Catskills Mountains so they can re-bond. Points again to Elise who thinks this will be too much, too soon.

People. Know your genre. If you are in a rom-com, especially a musical rom-com, then by all means go stay at a kitschy hotel in the woods. Wonderful things will occur and you will open your heart in a non-literal fashion. In horror, AVOID THE HOTEL. AVOID THE WOODS. THE OPENING OF YOUR HEART WILL BE LITERAL.

Since this is horror, one approaches this book assuming that the hotel will be full of ominous issues involving the warping of time and space, and one is correct. Also, in a rom-com, AMNESIA! Is surprisingly promising, but in horror – not so much. It’s not a spoiler to say that the friends immediately realize that Julie is just not the same as her pre-disappearance self, what with her new and awful body odor, the fact that her teeth keep falling out and her new habit of consuming nothing but alcohol and meat, preferably raw.

In terms of atmosphere and body horror, this book is not subtle but it sure is effective, starting with an overpowering sense that something is just Not Quite Right. The hotel is supposed to be cute, with garishly themed rooms, but it misses the cute mark and sails straight into oppressively tacky. Observe the Juliet room:

It’s obscenely pink. Hot pink carpet, metallic pink floral wallpaper, crystal chandeliers dripping from the ceiling like stalactites…a silky magenta bedspread makes sporadic appearances beneath an excess of fuzzy pink pillows. ..The whole room has an overpowering smell of rose.

I’m already screaming “RUN!” and nothing has even happened yet. Even the landscape is off:

It’s been a warm fall, and the leaves are confused. Some are fiercely green, ignorant of the fact that it’s October, or perhaps aware and defiant. Others got the memo and have dutifully turned themselves yellow, orange, red. The surrounding wood is dense. It gives me the feeling the hotel shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t have intruded. It gives me the feeling that I shouldn’t be here.

For the strengths and weaknesses of this book, look no further than the above paragraph. Happily, it contains subtle warnings that things are going to go wrong, with a sense of claustrophobia and a sense of cosmic un-right-ness. The leaves, in my opinion, are a clever, telling, and original touch. This book excels at using small details to convey a lot of information.

Unhappily, it goes on to have the narrator point out that these are signs of badness as if I hadn’t noticed. The woods make you nervous? The hell you say! I thought they were enfolding the hotel like a soft blanky. My bad. Thanks for setting me straight.

The strengths and weaknesses of the book also play out in how the friends are described. They are united by the fact that they are cynical, shallow, self-pitying, judgmental, self-centered, and resistant to any honest discussion of feelings:

For being close friends, the closest friends any of us have, we don’t often talk about our life struggles or our emotions. We don’t share our feelings, at least not in-depth. Only when we’re hammered or desperate. We’re all repressed, and that’s how we like it. That’s part of why we’re close. We have a mutual understanding.

It took me a long time to figure out why I should care about any of these people, and why on earth they became friends in the first place. But then they ended up piling onto the same bed in a hotel room and I saw how their friendship played out as an exercise in escape and companionship:

After the few remaining pieces of pizza have gone cold and dry, we abandon the food debate for one about music, then for one about which side we would take in famous feuds, and then we fall down a dark rabbit hole that starts with a survey of the biggest dicks we’ve ever seen, turns to John Holmes, a hard left to the Wonderland Murders, the Manson murders, Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, The First Wives Club and ends with a sing along of “You Don’t Own Me.”

The navigational markers in that paragraph cracked me up, and personally, I felt so seen.

Ultimately, Julie’s very existence after two years of disappearance is a big truth grenade lobbed at a very fragile structure of denial. The more monstrous she becomes, the more the group’s ability to pretend they she is OK and that they are OK collapses. Just as Elise refused to believe Julie was dead even after Mae and Molly gave up, Elise is the last character to face off with whatever Julie has become. If anything damages the thematic continuity of the story, it’s that the weird hotel stuff is never explained, a grating hole in an otherwise cohesive story.

This is a pretty flawed book, what with the narrator spelling everything out and the plot holes, and yet it stuck with me because of the details and because of the strength of the emotion. The book is rich in description and in portrayals of the mundane moments of friendship. In a way it’s a love letter to the banal intimacy of friendship, one that involves toothbrushes, gummy vitamins, dirty dishes, all the little things of a shared life:

I can hear Julie’s laugh, like she’s next to me, like she’s got her head on my shoulder. I can smell her shampoo, her scalp. That’s love. Knowing the smell of someone else’s head. I get whiffs of it sometimes, randomly. What a funny kind of ghost. A phantom scent.

The book also stuck with me because of what it says about grief, love, and denial. The women have based their friendship on a refusal to face truths about themselves and about others, carried to an extreme by Elise’s refusal to believe that Julie is dead. Julie’s physical deterioration mirrors the growing deterioration of Elise’s denial, and Elise’s growing terror matches Julie’s growing inability to maintain her own denial. Julie is a powerful and tragic character, and what happens to her is also a powerful metaphor.

This a scary story because scary things happen (chases and gore and jump scares, oh my!) but it’s a powerful story because it’s really about friendship, truth, and grief. There’s so much powerful emotional and universal truth behind the body horror, and so much woven in commentary on everything from how patriarchy damages women, to how women bond for survival even as they judge one another, to how our college selves change after college ends.

Overall it’s about grief. And yes, about how the woods are not your friend, and how stupid movies are important, and shared jokes and stories, and “you can’t go wrong with pizza,” and how, when the vents start dripping blood, you should leave, immediately, and file a complaint on Yelp as a service to others. Seriously. Even in a rom-com, that’s not good.

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