If you have been desperately yearning for a women-led horror novel that is bone-chilling and slow-building, Rachel Harrison’s debut novel “The Return” is the book for you.
“The Return” introduces readers to four college friends, who, in their post-college lives, all live in different parts of the country: narrator Elise, Julie, Mae and Molly. Elise and Julie, who were college roommates, are best friends and the closest of the bunch. When Julie goes missing while hiking in Maine’s Acadia National Park, almost everyone eventually comes to accept that Julie is dead and won’t be found. Elise, however, can’t shake her firm belief that Julie is still alive and out there.
Elise isn’t wrong. Two years after her disappearance, Julie turns up emaciated and amnesiac, with no memory of the past two years. Trying to return to some semblance of normalcy, the four women venture out to a remote, kitschy hotel with themed rooms and reunite for a weekend.
As is usually the case with horror, giving away any plot points beyond what is provided in the summary on the back of the physical book — which is a beautiful hot pink, showing off what is assumedly the hotel’s tacky but charming interior — risks ruining the slow unfolding that builds such an uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the novel.
And Harrison uses atmosphere really, really well — spookingly well. Red Honey Inn, the novel’s setting, proves that the tried-and-true horror trope of using hotels as the set pretty much always pays off. There’s something sinister about the idea of being somewhere unfamiliar and liminal, and “The Return” leans heavily into this, making readers feel as though they have to look over their shoulders. The abundance of setting detail, and being in Elise’s paranoid head, makes every corner turned feel dangerous and every creak described feel suspicious.
Admittedly, the novel’s main pitfall is the style in which it’s written, which most of the time is an exercise in telling instead of showing. Elise’s narration doesn’t leave much to read into because she reads into most everything. While the overabundance of setting detail does work in the story’s favor, sometimes it becomes overwhelming, with the technicalities detracting from Elise’s personal voice.
That said, this pitfall is broadly undermined by a suspenseful, page-turning narrative that has as much of a satisfying ending as one can expect of the genre, which is no easy feat. Tension is high throughout, but little reveals — ones delivered not as machete blows but as carefully woven peaks in tension — are the backbone of this book. By the time the last 70 or so pages come around and the pace becomes quicker than before, the tense atmosphere has already achieved its goal: to ensnare readers completely, perhaps threatening to never let go. “The Return” has an ending that returns to you again and again, unexpectedly, well after the book has been closed.
What’s more, Harrison’s characters alone make “The Return” well worth the read. Reviews are bound to slate this novel as feminist horror because of its four female leads and the focus on female friendship over romantic relationships with men. Inevitably, it is feminist horror — there’s always going to be something sociopolitical about the kind of diversity exhibited by this group of women, as one of them is a lesbian and Chinese and another lost her arm as a child.
At the same time, “The Return” really is just good old-fashioned horror that happens to let women take the wheel, making women’s problems a concern for once. It’s only as political as the somber fact that women’s realities can’t help but be political. That can’t be avoided, but there’s no prominent agenda at the forefront of this novel and that’s OK. “The Return” is a thrilling horror novel driven by four complicated female characters, and that’s subversive in and of itself.
“The Return” can be purchased on bookshop.org, a website that shares proceeds with small, independent bookstores. Alternatively, you can use bookstorelink.com to search for independent bookstores near you — many bookstores in the Bay Area are currently offering delivery services and curbside pick-up.