Review: “Behind the Door,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Characterization, atmosphere, plot
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s Behind the Door (A Kathy Ryan Novel Book 1) returns to the world in which Kathy Ryan, occult expert, aids the police in dealing with… unusual events. Though this is book one in a series, the character was already established in Chills. I think it would be fine to read this book without having read that one, but Chills is delightful enough that I recommend reading it regardless. Behind the Door depicts a world in which the paranormal is a bit more readily available than in ours. It’s something of a poorly kept secret in some towns, where some folks believe and others don’t. In the woods just outside the town of Zarephath, Pennsylvania, there stands a Door. Local tradition holds that if you were to lay your burdens down in a letter, carefully wording how you wish them to be taken from you, then seal it with wax mixed with your blood and push the letter under the Door, within three days your wish will be granted. Not everyone will be happy with the results, however, so people are not generally encouraged to use the Door. There are two major rules one must follow when using the Door: never, ever open it, and never use it more than once. Kari, who lost her daughter Jessica to suicide, wishes to be rid of her pain. Toby, a pedophile, wishes to be rid of his terrible urges. Carl, who killed a boy in a hit-and-run, wishes it had never happened. When Kari’s wish goes wrong, she breaks the rules. Zarephath and its inhabitants will never be the same.

There are thankfully tales the older residents use to scare people into being careful with the Door, because the idea that nothing had gone wrong before now wouldn’t have made sense. There are stories Cicely tells of people wishing for the dead to return to life, only to have them return as walking corpses. She mentions to Kari that those who try to use the Door a second time die. Even everyday wishes get twisted and bent, and people are warned to word their requests carefully. There’s also a later explanation for why what Kari does is even possible (and why it isn’t known to have happened before), which is appreciated.

The characters are fantastic. Content warning: two of the characters are pedophiles, and they aren’t portrayed as wholly evil. That may be something people don’t want to read, but it’s handled skillfully. Retired Monroe County sheriff Bill Grainger, a major character who calls Kathy in and works with her and the current sheriff to free the town from evil, has also used the Door, and isn’t a perfect man. The characters are complex, and most of them, having used the Door at one point or another, are neither pure nor perfect. The sins of the town return to haunt them as, one by one, the granted wishes of the townspeople are rescinded, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The atmosphere is tense and engrossing. I read the book in one sitting, and then went looking for something more from SanGiovanni. The idea of what the Door might be does get addressed (there’s writing of some kind on the doorway), and it’s intriguing. The idea of why the wishes are granted isn’t addressed, but I feel like it’s at least possible to imagine some of the options from what’s here, and that’s good enough for me in this kind of story.

SanGiovanni’s world in which the occult is very much real, and more widely experienced than in our own, is full of possibility. I look forward to reading more!

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