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Show of hands: whose first date was spent exploring a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? No takers I see. Then let’s live vicariously through the James and Amelia, the teenaged main characters of A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman.
This brief novella (114 pages) gets right to the point when 17-year-old James asks Amelia, also 17, on a date. The pair borrow his uncle’s canoe and enjoy a typical day on the water until a previously hidden tunnel brings them to an adjacent lake they’d never seen before. Even more incredible is the two-story house just beneath its surface. Unable to resist exploring the frightening yet exhilarating mystery, the teens dive in and find everything in the house is intact: rugs, books, paintings, a coatrack that stands upright, unmoved by currents. They return home, take scuba lessons (off camera as it were) and return to the watery treasure again and again, their infatuation growing with each dive.
Malerman (who’s previous book Bird Box had people falling down and hurting themselves for fun) creates a cozy snapshot of a summer shared by two young adults experiencing the thrills and anxieties of their first real relationship. In fact, the house is a metaphor for exactly that: it’s intoxicating yet scary. Familiar yet completely foreign. The kids soon become overwhelmed not by the house itself, but their fascination with it.
The book is categorized as horror and while there are some moody, atmospheric scenes, it’s not scary. Dresses float around the sunken house as if worn by unseen occupants, and Amelia has a startling experience while looking into a mirror. These scenes and others like them foster a creepy vibe and that’s all they’re meant to do.
As a novella A House at the Bottom of a Lake is very much a snapshot of a larger story, so there’s not a lot of “how” or “why” (the kids even adopt the mantra, “Don’t ask how or why”). We don’t see the kids take scuba lessons or learn where their equipment came from. They start spending days at a time at the house, and there’s no mention of their parents’ concern over their disappearance. They eat, and I wonder where the food comes from. You can quibble over details like this, but it’s best to let them go and sink into the story.
The ending. I won’t spoil anything but it’s divisive. I’ll let you read it yourself.
A House at the Bottom of a Lake can be read in a sitting and that’s how I’d advise reading it, letting yourself sink into memories of that first special someone.