After the wild disappointment of the latest Harry Hole outing (The Killing Moon), I thought that the Norwegian superstar author Jo Nesbø was seriously off form, and perhaps his best days were well behind him. With The Night House, Nesbø aspires to compensate for the failed Hole installment and regain the respect his loyal readership, experimenting with various genres, themes, and narrative techniques in an attempt to revitalize his storytelling bravado. The result is bound to dichotomize both critics and readers as there will be those who consider this novel to be the author's best standalone to date and those who dismiss it as an overambitious, miscarried endeavor. The Night House is a three-act horror novel flirting with various other (sub)genres that will appeal to the vast YA audience, evoking a feeling reminiscent of Stephen King's early works. Nesbø upgrades the unreliable narrator trope, introducing a triangular narrative structure with each corner suggesting a distinctive identity of the protagonist and first-person narrator, Richard. In the end, one can't help but wonder what is true and what is not in a labyrinthine maze of cunning and deception where nothing can be taken for granted.
The story commences with Richard Elauved, an orphan teenager who lost his parents in a fire, frivolously spending his days in the small town of Ballantyne bullying and terrorizing his weaker classmates, a true "piranha" as he effectively describes himself. In the first pages, we see Richard hanging out with Tom, a stammering and insecure boy, strolling around town in an attempt to overcome their boredom. Richard convinces the gullible Tom to make a telephone prank and chooses a random name from the catalog to be its victim. But then, the unthinkable happens. As Tom is holding the receiver, he becomes devoured by it in front of Richard's bewildered eyes. The event proves hard to explain to the authorities who will investigate Tom's disappearance and things become even worse when during another otherworldly instance which takes place in Richard's house, a second boy disappears. This is the setting of an intricate story that takes many turns in the course of the novel's nearly 250 pages and twists the mind of the reader who becomes increasingly invested in this multi-layered mystery. However, Nesbø reserves the most astonishing of surprises from the finale that will be received as enthralling by some and disenchanting by others.
The Norwegian crime writer drew his inspiration for The Night House from various fields, literary and cinematic. The novel echoes the style of classic horror writers such as Edgar Allan Poe -"dream within a dream" trope- and H. P. Lovecraft while also paying homage to films like Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) and Oriol Paulo's 2022 thriller God's Crooked Lines (Los renglones torcidos de Dios). Even Usual Suspects join the mix toward the end. The flip side is that, for its better part, The Night House feels like a mosaic composed of Nesbø's various influences from the world of art. While the storytelling per se is engaging and keeps you alert throughout, there is a faint odour of unoriginality spoiling the novel's lasting impressions. It is interesting to see Nesbø''s approach to a genre that he hadn't touched until now and the book is vastly entertaining but lacks the stamp of authenticity which is what one expects from an author of this stature. The Night House is a nice holiday read and the perfect present to make for the new year that arrives tomorrow.
A final mention: the cover illustration is one of the best for 2023 thriller books.