Situated in Summertown, Tennessee, McKamey Manor is generally known as the most extreme of America’s extreme haunted houses. A full-contact experience that lasts between eight and ten hours, participants in the haunt must undergo a physical an psychological exam before entering and are required to sign a forty-page waiver. The controversial haunt’s owner, Russ McKamey, offers $20,000 to anyone who manages to finish the tour, though as of 2019, no one ever had.
McKamey Manor has been the subject of numerous profiles and was a centrepiece in John Schnitzer’s 2017 documentary, Haunters: The Art of the Scare. It also shares some elements in common with the extreme haunt at the heart of Reprieve, a new novel by Murray, Kentucky, writer James Han Mattson. In the book, the fictional Nebraska haunt, called Quigley House, contains five cells through which the contestants must pass while successfully retrieving a series of envelopes as a clock runs down and costumed actors dump fake blood over them and shock them with electrified sticks. If they make it past the fifth cell, they are eligible for a cash reward of $60,000.
For anyone familiar with the notion of extreme haunted houses in general – and McKamey Manor specifically – Mattson’s set up, including the reality-TV-inspired monetary reward and the potential for real harm to befall the participants, is already anxiety producing. Add to that the novel’s canny structure – it opens on witness testimony about an incident that occurred inside Quigley House involving one participant being held at knife-point – and the tension ratchets up further even before the story really gets underway.
Our four contestants are Victor and his fiancée Jane, international university student Jaidee, and Bryan, Jaidee’s dormmate. Bryan is also the cousin of Kendra, who works as a costumed parking lot attendant at the haunt. Quigley House is owned and run by the oleaginous John Forrester, who sets up milquetoast hotel manager Leonard Grandton on a sex-tourist expedition to Thailand, where the hapless Leonard convinces himself he has fallen in love with a local prostitute. Jaidee, meanwhile, has come to Nebraska from Thailand in pursuit of Victor, his former ESL teacher and the subject of his unrequited lust.
The various connections between and among the novel’s principal characters are internecine and might, in less adept hands, come off as feeling hopelessly contrived or coincidental. It is to Mattson’s credit that the relationships binding together his cast members never feel artificial; his confidence in manipulating both the novel’s timeline and the contortions of its plot is sufficient to allow the reader to set aside any niggling disbelief, at least for the duration of the fast-paced story.
And the story moves at a furious clip as Mattson weaves back and forth in time and space, from the quartet navigating the cells at Quigley House to scenes in Thailand and Kendra’s home life with her widowed mom, her Aunt Rae, and cousin Bryan. Kendra is a horror fan with a particular love of Stephen King – the first time we encounter her, at her father’s wake, she is off in a corner reading Pet Sematary. An outcast at school, she forms a horror club with fellow student Shawn, the better to allow Mattson to name-check everything from Hellraiser and Jacob’s Ladder to C.H.U.D. II.
These are not idle references. Like novelist Stephen Graham Jones, Mattson is a true genre devotee, something that is apparent in his background knowledge and his facility for setting up conventions and clichés only to knock them down or otherwise subvert them. Kendra becomes an employee at Quigley House because she thinks it will impress Shawn, only to discover that she enjoys the work and starts to make tentative friends with her co-workers. She begins to develop an independence and a life outside her stifling home situation; her coming-of-age arc is nicely handled in the context of the larger story.
As is Leonard’s experience in Thailand, which could easily have descended into bathos or hectoring. Far from a one-dimensional ugly American tourist, Leonard is given a credible backstory and his encounters with Boonsri, the sex worker, are subtle and carefully wrought. His loneliness and desperation are given a careful airing, such that the reader feels a degree of empathy for him even as we recognize his utter narcissism and self-regard.
The subplot with Leonard and Boonsri also highlights one of Mattson’s key themes: the ways in which racial power dynamics play out across various situations and segments of society. Leonard’s wilful blindness to his consumerist relationship with Boonsri is profound, as is the irony in his professions of love: he spends an entire week with the woman without ever asking her a single question about herself or her life. In his self-absorption and refusal to reckon with the realities of class and background, Leonard operates as a mirror reflection of Jaidee’s unrequited crush on Victor, in pursuit of whom Jaidee travels around the world, only to end up heartbroken and imperilled in the confines of Quigley House.
In the same way, the horrors of Quigley House are contrasted with the horrors of racial and sexual animosity, issues Mattson teases out via his diverse cast. When Bryan, who is Black, accuses Jaidee of being a “Twinkie” (i.e. yellow on the outside and white on the inside), Jaidee responds by accusing Bryan of homophobia. These accusations are hurled almost casually, belying the very real hurt that undergirds them.
There are moments in which Mattson plays his hand a bit too heavily in this regard. After one argument between the roommates, Bryan’s friends accost Jaidee at a bar and try to explain the nature of race in America: “It’s seductive, right? … That world, their power, the proximity to whiteness. They say, Try to be us, wear our clothes, listen to our music, watch our movies, read our books, speak our language because we’re good, we’re sexy, we’re successful … They say this knowing full well that you can never be like them, and that as long as you stay in line, keep up that desire to be them, you’re no real threat.” This is, of course, an entirely accurate analysis; it is also unnecessary, since the whole thrust of Mattson’s story has been leading the reader to precisely this conclusion. This is not the only instance in which subtext becomes text – in which Mattson makes the mistake of saying the quiet part out loud – but these moments do not generally detract from the momentum of the narrative.
And for those with strong nerves, this is a narrative with quite a bit of momentum. The non-linear structure, which includes court transcripts and letters alongside direct dramatization of what occurs inside Quigley House, serves the novel well, allowing Mattson to detonate surprises and reversals at precisely those points at which they will be most shattering.
We find out relatively early the meaning of the book’s title: it is the safe word that, when uttered, will bring the action in Quigley House to a halt (and lose them the money). As we race toward the climax to discover how those characters and that knife came to collide with one another, we are placed in a situation very similar to that of the haunt participants: do we barrel forward, despite our increasing sense of impending dread, or do we utter the safe word and shut the book? Mileage may vary depending on an individual reader’s emotional resolve, but those who do press on are in for a knuckle-whitening treat.