GAMES FOR DEAD GIRLS by Jen Williams (BOOK REVIEW)
She was at my side suddenly, her face in the gloom small and round, and tipped up to watch me closely. She narrowed her eyes. ‘Do you remember, Charlie?’
What do you (an anything-but-horror reader) do when one of your favourite auto-buy authors brings out a horror book?
Well I can’t vouch for what you would do, but I dove right in.
Was there still everything you enjoy about Jen Williams’ writing? Yep, shenanigans and malarky aplenty! Did you end up loving it? Absolutely! Did you read it before bedtime? Not a chance, and I recommend you don’t either.
Jen Williams’ latest novel Games for Dead Girls is a crime thriller with heavy folk horror elements. It reminded me a little of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, but amped up and on holiday in Broadchurch. We follow Charlie in the past and the present; when she’s on holiday with her family, the summer friendship she makes with a girl in the caravan park; and when she returns to that caravan park as an adult, ostensibly researching a book she intends to write on local folklore. As she increasingly loses control of the games she devises with her new friend, in the present we begin to piece together what happened back then and why she’s had to return.
Regardless of what genre she’s writing, you can rely on Williams’ storytelling to be superb. What she’s done here with Games for Dead Girls is to bring the storytelling to a meta level where, not to get post-modern on this, but the question of who is telling the story, and how reliable a storyteller they are, becomes key. The stories we tell ourselves about events, the ways in which our memories become stories we share with those who experienced them with us. How reliable these stories and memories may or may not be. It was a theme I really loved and thoroughly enjoyed the complexities of throughout.
With regards to the writing itself, Williams does a fantastic job of intertwining a thread of threat into an otherwise harmless or mundane observation, layering this ominous atmosphere in such an insidious, subtle manner. It’s like an after-taste, when you’re half-way through your cuppa and you wonder if the milk is off:
They were exactly the same as they had always been. At first glance, they looked identical, but if you trained your eye you could see all the things that set them apart from each other – and if you were a little kid left to run riot around the site all day, it was vital to learn these differences. Otherwise, you might never find your way home again.
There are elements of haunting and a fair bit of body horror throughout, as you might have deduced from the cover, but the mystery behind it all kept me turning the pages. By the end of the first chapter, Williams dropped so many enticing hints to draw you in to this story, just as any good thriller should. I reached the end of that chapter with so many questions that I needed the answers to – I was hooked. As a reader, you’re trying to puzzle what happened to Charlie in her past, just as Charlie begins to puzzle why there is a history of girls going missing in this touristy seaside town that turned her life upside down. There are dual mysteries to solve here, which is what made this such an addictive read.
Games for Dead Girls does for horror and crime what The Ninth Rain did for sci-fi and fantasy. Williams demonstrates once more what a skilful writer she is; she takes the best elements from both genres to combine them into a chilling, atmospheric story that you won’t be able to put down. This is a dark story which highlights there are worse monsters out there than even the most over-active imaginations can dream up. As much as I’m looking forward to her next fantasy in the autumn, Talonsister, I’ll definitely be coming back for more horror thrillers too!
There was a power to knowing her words were affecting her listeners.
Games for Dead Girls is out today from HarperVoyager and is available here!