Book: “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage
Publishing Info: Mulholland Books, July 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: If Shirley Jackson wrote The Shining, it might look like this deliciously unsettling horror novel from the acclaimed author of Baby Teeth.
A mother must protect her family from the unnatural forces threatening their new and improved life in a rural farmhouse.
The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They’re an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it’s his turn to pursue his passion.
But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
While usually I am perfectly fine with the winter months (even in Minnesota!), this year I am dreading it. I can handle the cold and the nutty weather, but the thought of having to be cut off from family due to COVID-19 and the inability to comfortably or safely gather outside is going to be very hard. Winter in Minnesota is already isolating in a lot of ways, and this winter it’s going to be incredibly demoralizing. But I tell myself that it could be worse. I could be totally trapped and cut off from the rest of society, and stalked by a mysterious being that wants me and my family for untoward purposes. So I guess that “Wonderland” by Zoje Stage puts some things into perspective! Seems fitting to kick off this year’s Horrorpalooza with a horror story that makes me count my blessings.
Well, horror story may be a little generous for this Gothic dark fantasy, though I do see the elements of it in there glimmering through at least a little bit. For Orla and Shaw Bennett, this new home in a remote cabin in the woods is supposed to be Shaw’s writing haven. Living in Manhattan for years before to support Orla’s dancing career has shifted now to a living situation that Shaw prefers, and his entitlement to his moment in the sun is just the first shade of something being wrong. There are definite shades of “The Shining” with Shaw and his need to stay in this place to get his career going again, even when strange things, like foot upon foot of unseasonable snow showers down and strands them with little supplies and no way out. And as their situation deteriorates, Orla is determined to save her family from whatever it is…. even as her daughter Eleanor Queen is getting closer and closer to the entity that wants them to stay. There are definite pulse pounding dramatics to be had and genuine moments of high stakes and suspense, but honestly “Wonderland” never quite got to the levels of horror or terror that I tend to associate with horror novels (outside of one moment with a bear…. and that’s all I’m going to say). I would classify “Wonderland” as more of a dark fantasy tale than horror, which means that my expectations being dashed soured me a bit to the story.
But genre aside, what really did work about “Wonderland” was both Orla and Eleanor Queen, and the mother-daughter relationship that is highlighted within its pages. Orla has put her family first from the get go, leaving her career behind to support Shaw’s aspirations and to help her children transition to a new, very different, life. Orla has strength within herself, and Eleanor Queen, too, is approaching their situation with her own inner strength. The two of them work together to try and save the family from the dark being that is holding them hostage, and even as they feel like they are losing everything, they always have each other to lean on. Eleanor Queen has a unique insight into what is going on, and she and Orla have a really powerful and touching relationship is just one aspect of this positive representation of the power of ‘female’ driven approaches. Another that really struck me was that once we do find out what exactly is going on, the origin of the conflict is unique in that Orla and Eleanor Queen have grace and empathy that we don’t usually see in stories like this. A lot of the time when supernatural entities are at play, there is some kind of vengeance motivation. “Wonderland” has a different angle. And once again, that is all I’m going to say. Regardless, it works and made the story feel more outside the box. Again, not horror. But dark fantasy to be certain.
“Wonderland” is claustrophobic and engaging, even if it isn’t too scary. But then, isolation is scaring me right now. So maybe I’m not giving it enough horror credit. Regardless, Horrorpalooza has begun, folks. Let’s make it a good one!
Rating 7: A Gothic tale that feels less horror and more mother-daughter examination, “Wonderland” has some interesting moments of dark fantasy…. but not too many scares.