It’s not often that an American Book Award winner decides to write a supernatural thriller centered around the haunting of a small town in Maine, but that’s exactly what Ann Arensberg has done with Incubus. While the premise may not seem original (and indeed, seems like something Stephen King has pretty well covered!) Arensberg’s take is unique, owing to her choice of narrator.
We follow the increasingly frightening events through the eyes of Cora, wife of the town rector, Henry. The novel starts with a letter from Cora, stating that – due to the nearly unexplainable events that afflicted their town – she and Henry have established a center that studies supernatural phenomenon, and helps those who are currently suffering the way they suffered. It’s a nice touch, and made the novel seem as though it were actually a tale of true accounts.
Throughout the novel, Cora is preoccupied by the day-to-day, the mundane: caring for her garden, running the church’s bake sale, cooking three square meals a day for her husband. (Warning: Do not read while hungry. The descriptions of her food will set your stomach to rumbling!) Cora notes potentially-supernatural events – unseasonable heat, lack of rain, the paralytic nightmares suffered by her friends and family – dryly, straight-forwardly. Everything has a logical explanation for Cora, leaving the reader to doubt both her interpretations and our own…until there simply are not more logical explanations, and even Cora needs to recognize that something otherworldly has been influencing these events.
When other reviewers decry Cora’s focus on the practical aspects of running a household and being a church member, it feels as though they are missing the point. These qualities make her account all the more horrifying, because she doesn’t believe in this stuff in the first place. And yet she has to record what she has seen and experienced, despite everything in her being telling her that incubi don’t exist. It’s that kind of dawning horror – hers and the reader’s – that makes Incubus a successful horror novel.
The scares are slow to build, if only because Cora is slow to realize them for what they are, even when they are happening to her. Additionally, as can be assumed with a title like Incubus, the scares are often sexual in nature. Cora, for the most part, shies away from detailing these supernatural occurrences as rape, but that is indeed what they are. If sexual violence against women – even when the perpetrator cannot be seen and is not human – is something that triggers you, I would not advise you to read this novel. (The scenes are not described lasciviously, but they are upsetting.)
The only aspect of Incubus that kept this from being four stars for me was the ending, which goes a little off the rails. Whereas previously we have only been given tantalizing hints as to the true nature of the malevolent force haunting the town, the ending tries to be more explicit. I won’t spoil here, but I certainly didn’t see it coming. Sadly, I think Arensberg’s choice undermines a lot of the philosophical and theological discussion that is so interesting, and brings up more questions than can be feasibly addressed before the novel’s end. Still, I thought Incubus was an effective supernatural thriller, for those of us who don’t mind realistic depictions of the creeping tensions that arise in a small town when something unnatural arrives.
I received Incubus free for review through Netgalley, courtesy of Open Road Media. Incubus is now available for paperback and digital e-book purchase. (It was originally published in 1999.)
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “I think we have been warned. The age of faith was over, faith in science as well as in religion. We were entering the era of uncertainty.”
Other Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette