I have a feeling Stephanie Perkins’ new Young Adult horror novel had a different working title. There’s Someone Inside Your House sounds like the kind of slasher product that can be shelved alongside Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The novel definitely has those elements, but in many ways the title belies the underlying story.
First of all, a few of the grisly, setpiece murders by hunting knife do take place inside the victim’s home. Other killings, however, take place in such venues as a high school locker room, or an alley near a parade route, or a corn field (the setting is rural Nebraska). From the title I expected this book to be more like a novel version of The Strangers, a home-invasion survival story marked by growing unease of the hostile presence within your intimate space. The best home-invasion stories take the spaces you’re supposed to feel the safest, and turn them into alien territory with danger around every corner. Perkins does some of this – an open cabinet that ought to have been closed, an egg timer out of place, etc. but doesn’t build suspense the way the standouts of this genre do. Too many times the blood and guts come out of nowhere.
Absent a real sense of horror (other than the queasiness that Perkins can effortlessly evoke with no-holds-barred gore), we’re left with the YA of it all, which is where Perkins excels. Not surprising, since she made her name in YA romance and this is her first stab at a horror novel (see what I did there?) The slasher-film title sits atop an involving story of teenage romance and guilt. The horror of the knife-killings feels very far away in the story of the awkward, steamy romance between teen protagonist Makani and her love interest Ollie. The world they inhabit – small-town Nebraska, where “different” is seen as a minor threat – is colorful and involving.
Unable to blend in due to her multi-racial heritage and Hawai’ian upbringing, made to feel unwanted by neglectful and self-involved abesntee parents, Makani identifies with a group of lovable outcasts. You can just see the strange looks emo-girl Alex would get in the halls of a high school in podunk Nebraska, and the internet age has proven that girls like her exist in abundance. As do boys like Ollie, who flies his freak flag in conservative farm country with bright pink hair, sparking rumors of homosexuality or at least sexual deviance. It’s nothing, though, to their friend Darby, a trans-boy. Darby’s trans status is not key to the plot, and in some ways feels like a way to simply tack on diversity to the cast. It’s a political statement of its own – a trans character can exist just fine in a story that isn’t all about gender identity. I can’t tell if this is more admirable, didactic, or just a missed opportunity.
Her skin color isn’t the only thing that makes Makani feel different. Early in the book, some dark secret in her past is teased at. More so than a killer on the loose, Perkins effectively builds suspense by ruminating on Makani’s crushing guilt; the fact that she had to move from her beloved homeland of Hawai’i to her grandmother’s home amid the corn and change her last name to avoid the blowback. I spent two thirds of the book on the edge of my seat – “What happened?? What did she do??” It sets a high bar for Perkins to pay off, one that I think she misses once the big secret is revealed. That’s what Makani is so guilty about? I thought she would have at least killed someone. I was totally on her side, and didn’t think she needed to be guilty at all. Alex, Darby, and Ollie definitely feel this way and encourage her once she finally comes clean. Perkins mines some truth in the backward psychology of guilt. At worst, it starts to feel like we’re reading an “issue novel” about the dangers of hazing and the culture of public shaming, which is a lot to load into to a novel already taking on transphobia and small-town politics. The lurid details of the scandal are worth hanging in there for, though.
Another reveal that seems to come a little too early is the identity of the killer. The speculation as to the very gender of the killer leads to some awkward, agrammatical use of plural pronouns — “They” and “Their” when the pronoun should be singular, except we can’t give up the game with a “Him” or “Her.” We meet the killer early on, but … they don’t make that big of an impression, which makes the identity reveal feel like a bit of a cheat. The back half of the book is then a chase to apprehend … them, before … they can kill more people. Additionally, speculation about the killer’s motive dominates the story thematically once the identity is out there, to the point where the reveal of the motive is treated like a major plot point … except who really cares about the motive of a killer whose M.O. is to cut smiley faces into peoples’ throats, scalp them and cut off their ears? It’s interesting, but not earth-shattering.
The romance between Ollie and Makani, by far the two most interesting characters, takes up the most space within the story, and rightly so. Perkins fills it with life and life-or-death stakes as Makani wonders if anyone can love her once her secret is out; Ollie plays it so cucumber-cool that we have to wonder if he might be the killer. As a horror novel this bad boy could be punched up. As a small-town YA love story between misfits who have less to be ashamed of than they think, it packs a punch. And what adds stakes to a bloodbath of a finale than knowing that our heroes are young and in love, each terrified that the other will be cut down?
Whad did you think of There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins?