Book: “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson
Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: A chilling and blisteringly relevant literary novel of social horror centered around a brutal killing that takes place in a full-contact haunted escape room—a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment.
On April 27, 1997, four contestants make it to the final cell of the Quigley House, a full-contact haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska, made famous for its monstrosities, booby-traps, and ghoulishly costumed actors. If the group can endure these horrors without shouting the safe word, “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize—a startling feat accomplished only by one other group in the house’s long history. But before they can complete the challenge, a man breaks into the cell and kills one of the contestants.
Those who were present on that fateful night lend their points of view: Kendra Brown, a teenager who’s been uprooted from her childhood home after the sudden loss of her father; Leonard Grandton, a desperate and impressionable hotel manager caught in a series of toxic entanglements; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a gay international student who came to the United States in a besotted search for his former English teacher. As each character’s journey unfurls and overlaps, deceit and misunderstandings fueled by obsession and prejudice are revealed, forcing all to reckon with the ways in which their beliefs and actions contributed to a horrifying catastrophe.
An astonishingly soulful exploration of complicity and masquerade, Reprieve combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life.
Review: You all know what a big fan I am of Halloween, and while for various reasons I haven’t done this in a long time I also really enjoy doing haunted hayrides, and living in Minnesota it’s not hard to drive outside the city limits to find such shenanigans. But I’m not as big into walk through haunted houses, and am certainly NOT into any ‘extreme’ haunted houses. Locally we had something called The Soap Factory, which made you sign a waiver before you went through, but they closed a couple years ago. The most infamous ‘extreme’ haunt, however is almost assuredly McKamey Manor, a combined haunted house escape room puzzle experience that is notorious in the haunt industry. Yes, you sign a waiver, and you may be subjected to physical and psychological torture for hours on end all in the name of thrills. There is no question in my mind that “Reprieve” by James Han Mattson is partially inspired by McKamey Manor, and that made an already enjoyable reading experience that much better. This book seems to be polarizing. I’m firmly on the ‘love’ team.
“Reprieve” is a deeply layered and multidimensional horror story that comes to life through literary structure. The guts of the tale involve a slowly revealed violent incident at Quigley House, a hardcore escape room/haunted house that offers players serious money if they can solve the puzzles in all the ‘cells’ while actors inflict psychological terror upon them. What exactly happened is slowly revealed through court room transcripts, flashbacks through character perspectives, and the straight narrative of the timeline of what happened in each cell up until the moment in question. I liked the slow build up and the combined story telling techniques, and how all of them combined to make a building tension of dread while also getting to know each character and what role they play. I’m sure that it’s the literary structure that threw readers for a loop, as I can definitely say that the creative choices made here are probably not for everyone. Which is totally okay. I, however, really liked it. I’m not the kind of person who thinks that horror needs to be elevated or classed up by any stretch of the imagination, but “Reprieve” does this without feeling pretentious or disingenuous. The scares are knowing what is coming (even if only in part), seeing it all unfold, and seeing the way that the REAL horror is in the bad behavior of villainous people, unwitting or not.
This is also a really well done commentary on capitalism, the weaponization of entertainment, and race in America. Many of the characters are POC, some are LGBTQIA+, and many of them feel lost, isolated, or Othered. Kendra is a new resident of this small Nebraska community and one of the few Black people (outside of her family) and finds herself working at Quigley House. The ‘we’re family here’ mentality definitely pulls her in deeper when she feels isolated in other ways. Contestant Jaidee is an international student from Thailand who is also gay, and feels scrutiny from his college peers because of both of these facts. And then there are the characters of Leonard, a hotel worker who feels inadequate in his personal life, and John, who owns Quigley House. Their friendship is a toxic concoction that encapsulates misogyny, xenophobia, and aggression, and sets off the first domino that leads to tragedy. Mattson knows what he’s doing with these characters, and while they easily could have felt like two dimensional villains, we get into their minds a bit, and it makes them fascinating, and all the more upsetting.
Boy did I enjoy “Reprieve”. It’s one of the more unique horror novels I’ve read lately, and it finds the horrors in both an extreme haunted house, and the darker side of American cultural consciousness.
Rating 9: A stunning literary horror thriller, “Reprieve” is mesmerizing, blistering, and deeply sad.