A black receiver threatens to overpower the cover of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø's "The Night House," a splash of blood oozing from the phone. A dark and brooding house looms in the background, a mysterious, shadowy figure in the topmost window. A fiery sky, a full moon — even the title font screams "scary."
This, you think, is going to be good.
Nesbø's first attempt at horror — excluding the gore in his bestselling crime novels featuring detective Harry Hole — certainly starts out that way. Things aren't going well for 14-year-old Richard, who has moved in with relatives and finds that life in the small town of Ballantyne doesn't suit him. He is a member of the "piranha caste," as another friendless loner tells him, and bored, bored, bored, as only a teenager can be. Plus he's a bully, an interesting twist.
If there is a heart of gold under that mean exterior, it's not on display in the first few pages. Richard has persuaded fellow outcast Tom to go down to the river, swollen by spring rain, to see if a Luke Skywalker action figure will fly if thrown. Richard doesn't mention he has stolen the toy. To make the experience even more unsettling, he makes fun of the other boy: "Tom looked like I'd hit him; I guess he didn't like me imitating his stammer. I didn't like it either, I just couldn't help it. It's always been like that. If people didn't already dislike me, I soon made sure that they did." Mission accomplished for the reader, too.
When Luke doesn't fly and gets swept down the river, the boys move their fun to a red phone booth on the edge of the nearby forest. Richard pressures Tom to make a prank call to a name picked at random from the phone book. Tom is instructed to say, "I'm the devil, and I'm inviting you to hell, because that's where you belong." Nesbo knows how to build tension, but what happens next strains suspension of disbelief. That's not necessarily a bad thing; horror is at its best when the scares are fresh, but "The Night House" both tries too hard and is derivative.
The dynamics among the teens and how they face what is terrorizing them recall Stephen King stories and novels ("It" springs to mind) as does the scary phone ("Mr. Harrigan's Phone," as well as King's son Joe Hill's "The Black Phone" and "Night Call," a "Twilight Zone" episode). The Pontiac Le Mans from "Night of the Living Dead" shows up, as does the movie itself. Echoes of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Twin Peaks" and possibly "The Fly." Homages? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. Mostly, it seems clumsy and overstuffed.
The structure is clever-ish. The "The Snowman" author wants to make a bigger point about writers and writing, but it is muddled by a first section that goes on too long, undercutting a third section that's supposed to tie it all together. (To reveal more would be a huge spoiler.) Bottom line, what promised to be scary isn't. Stephen King doesn't have a thing to worry about.
Maren Longbella is a Star Tribune copy editor.
The Night House
By: Jo Nesbo.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $28.