Updated: a day ago
Isn't it funny how sometimes themes converge? I've not even thought about the ethically dodgy, sensationalist psychology experiments of the 1970s since my quickly aborted foray into Psychology at AS level, nearly twenty years ago. Then I discover and love the You're Wrong About podcast episodes on the Stanford experiment. Then I discover The Stanford Experiment movie on Netflix. And finally I pick up this gem of a book, based around a fictional psychology and linguistic experiment in the same sensationalist vein.
Smithy is about a fictional experiment in which a group of largely unsupervised students move in with a chimp and attempt to teach him sign language. The story is written in the form of diary entries, letters, descriptions of found footage and excerpts from interviews. The experiment is carried out in an old Newport mansion where things go bump in the night, and as one might expect, it's not long before things start to go horribly wrong.
Being a fan of the gothic, I really enjoy when the reader is very clued in to the idea that a story's characters are in for a lot of trouble, while the characters themselves remain oblivious. Smithy provided this in spades, as not long in, Smithy starts signing 'woman' as the students point at chairs or doorways, and becomes agitated when he signs 'dark woman'. My hat comes off to Desiree for managing to keep the students so oblivious for such a long time, as it provides somehow both a feeling of dread and humour. As in teenage slasher films, you're left yelling, "Oh my god, it's a ghost, you idiots!" as the six very intellectual students come up with a variety of very tenuous hypotheses to explain Smithy's odd behaviour.
The form of the writing -- the various found documents, interviews and footage -- tell the story incredibly well. Although this is a favourite method of storytelling for me, as demonstrated by my love for Sarah Lotz's The Three and Day Four. The style means that we really get to know all of the student characters, and just enough about the leading professor to know just what a dick he is. The students are very well realised. I felt like I knew each of them equally, and really felt for them by the end as it becomes clear exactly how out of their depth they are.
If you're looking for a tidy ending, however, this may not be the story for you. The TV show Unsolved Mysteries is referenced during one of the interview excerpts, and this is very much the feeling at the end of this story. Although we are given glimpses of the characters as adults in their retrospective interviews, the final decision on what happened in that Newport mansions is left wholly up to the reader to determine. Personally I liked this -- I do love a bit of ambiguity -- but some readers may find it frustrating.
Smithy is an entertaining horror read, providing plenty of creeping dread and eventual gore. The author takes great delight in winking at the reader behind her character's backs in a way that creates both fun and fear. I highly recommend.
With many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the e-advanced review copy.
Smithy by Amanda Desiree is available to purchase here.