David Morris is satisfied with his quiet life. A book valuer based out of London, Morris is incredibly passionate about his work, and when he’s given the opportunity to visit and value the famed personal library of a recently deceased nobleman, he leaps at the opportunity. But something is deeply wrong in Somerset. The housekeeper is jumpy and judgmental, strictly enforcing odd, inexplicable rules. The townsfolk are reluctant to approach, and won’t go anywhere near the house once night falls. And in a small cottage owned by a visiting academic, David sometimes hears the piercing, shrieking cries of a woman in pain.
The first half of Isabel’s Skin – basically, everything up to the cottage – is fantastic. Moody, evocative, and undeniably memorable, the book’s atmosphere is heavy, pulsing with inhuman life. Benson’s prose contributes a lot to that, creating and maintaining a lot of the tension that drives the early, less overtly exciting chapters. Because, indeed, not a lot happens in the book’s opening chapters, but Benson does a fantastic job of making it feel alive, feel real and as visceral as your fear of the dark. More than real; portentous.
Which is why it’s a shame that the book becomes such a typical potboiler in its back half, dropping its atmosphere of creeping dread and becoming a far less engaging thriller. Its characters remain compelling, but it is a disappointing conclusion to a book that starts as strong as Isabel’s Skin does. The world shrinks, much of the (already small) cast disappears, and any lingering darkness dissipates as Benson shines a light in every dark corner of the book.
Despite Benson’s vivid prose and the book’s strong narrative voice, the further it slipped from its weird, chilling origins, the less I found it holding my attention. In its best moments, Isabel’s Skin is a thoroughly realized recreation of gothic horror storytelling. But its chilly foreshadowing soon gives way to something more predictable, and it follows that path to the end.
Cal Cleary is a librarian, critic and writer in rural Ohio. You can find more of his work at read/RANT and Comics Crux.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Alma Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.