Reprieve by James Han Mattson

Reprieve is a novel that combines horror with an exploration of people and social dynamics, as an unlikely group try to compete in a full contact haunted house escape room. In 1997, four contestants take part in Quigley House, a controversial full contact horror experience that you must make it through collecting red envelopes and not shouting the safe word, ‘reprieve’. However, in the final cell, a man breaks in and kills one of the contestants. Combining the stories of some of the people there that night—an employee who encouraged her cousin to take part, a hotel manager drawn down a questionable path, and a gay international student looking for belonging—with testimony, it turns out that who is to blame might be more complex.

I was drawn into this novel by the distinctive, bright cover and the blurb, which sounded unique and intriguing, and it did not disappoint. From the start, which opens with a transcript about what happened that night, you have questions, but the book doesn’t focus just on exactly what occurred, but sets up the backstory of some of the main characters, exploring their lives and motivations that led them to being at Quigley House that night. In particular, Kendra, a teenager who loves horror, has just been uprooted to Nebraska, and feels out of place in a majority white area but has her cousin to rely on, and Jaidee, a Thai student who goes to college in Nebraska to look for his former English teacher who he has a crush on, had intriguing stories, exploring not just choices and motivations, but race and fitting in.

The combination of the tension of the horror side of the book, as snippets are given of the team working through the cells of Quigley House, and the exploration of the characters, especially around racism and fetishisation which comes out through Kendra, Jaidee, and Leonard’s stories in different ways, works very well, making a complex yet gripping novel that shows that horror as a genre isn’t so simple. There’s some interesting questioning of horror tropes too, and around the representation of non-white people in horror, especially black characters being killed, and what this might mean for black horror fans.

In general, the book doesn’t shy away from depicting uncomfortable situations, not in terms of horror (though some people might find the Quigley House scenes scary), but things like culpability when a man’s downward spiral becomes manipulated by someone else, or when someone tries so hard to be white. What’s clever is that the horror house elements almost become a reprieve (yep…) from the complexity of the lives of the characters, because jump scares would be easier to unpick than racism, prejudice, and complicity.

To quickly summarise Reprieve, I’d go for ‘come for the full contact haunted escape room, stay for the complex social commentary’. It’s impressive how well crafted this book is in terms of structure and the ways the characters connect, though fans of straight ‘horror’ might be disappointed at the lack of twists and turns. 

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