At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s novel Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” On its surface, Reprieve is about four ordinary people who venture into a haunted house for the chance of a monetary reward. You could say it’s a story adjacent to The Haunting of Hill House, but even more disturbing.
Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. A group of participants enters and passes through several “cells” in the old mansion, collecting a number of envelopes in the allotted time and then moving to the next cell. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. It’s all perfectly safe, according to John, the man who runs the haunted house.
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Unlike Hill House, Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it John, or perhaps one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects, if they are indeed special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course?
Local college student Bryan is the leader of this group of contestants. Jaidee, his roommate, is an entitled Thai student who developed a crush on his English teacher, Victor, and followed him all the way to Nebraska. Victor and his fiancée, Jane, round out the foursome. We also meet Kendra, Bryan’s cousin and an avid fan of horror, who works for John. And though he’s not a member of the group, we also learn about Leonard, whose first action toward the woman he’s attracted to is to mow her down (accidentally or on purpose?) with a shopping cart.
There are many ways to look at a book with so many flavors of madness. It could be a study of the effects of thwarted desire on people who are basically incapable of empathy, which we see in Jaidee and Leonard. John goes out of his way to befriend Kendra, to get her to enlist Bryan to endure a whole lot of trauma for a chance to win what, in the end, isn’t a whole lot of money. After all, there aren’t that many African Americans in Lincoln, and Quigley House needs the press that would follow Brian’s win.
As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. Are we fighting to succeed in a fun house whose rewards aren’t worth the pain? As a study of systems of power at their most perverse, Reprieve is a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.