The Siren and the Spectre by Jonathan Janz

A review (audiobook)

Haunted House scenarios are making a return at the moment and Jonathan Janz’s take on the time-honoured classic has been received to high acclaim. In his tale, the dwelling in question is the ‘Alexander House,’ once owned by a disreputable son of a plantation owner called Judson Alexander. David Cain is a paranormal investigator of sorts, invited to stay in the House by the wife of his old friend, Chris. The wife is a flaky believer in the supernatural legacy of the House. Like many similar tales there is a grisly history to the property including the murder and vivisection of a whole family. Cain is a sceptic, however, with a long catalogue of books published debunking all kinds of supernatural claims. He is soon to have his worldly views challenged by the Siren – a strange woman who sings a mournful song at night-time, luring Cain out on to the river close to the house. He witnesses her at a distance and she even impinges herself on Cain’s mishap in the river when his kayak is nearly washed away – together with himself.

The House is not without its own apparitions, however and it is quickly established that there are two main lines to the haunting – that of the Siren, and that of the Alexander family.

Just as disturbing, however, are the residents of the Shelby home. Cain is introduced to this sordid den early on by his encounter with a young boy. The family’s involvement in the history of Alexander’s reign of terror becomes apparent as the story unfolds. This aspect to the story introduced a Jack Ketchum-esque  slant to things in that man’s inhumanity to man is often of greater dread than supernatural influences.

There are a number of themes that become apparent; the age-old conflict between scepticism/rationalism and the notion that the supernatural dimension might yet be real. There’s Cain’s personal haunting due to a past relationship with a girl from this area (who commits suicide,) coupled with the awkwardness of dealing with her still living sister. Finally, there is the inevitable striving to conquer one’s own personal demons and fears.

Throughout the novel, there is ample opportunity to ramp up the dread as several scenarios depict gruesome encounters and struggles with fiends both natural and supernatural. I felt that some of these conflicts were a bit overdone at times, especially in the last chapters.  It was clear to me who was going to survive and who wasn’t, and a certain amount of predictable verbiage could have been trimmed to the benefit of pacing. Plot-wise, there were some interesting twists and turns, but Janz is having to compete, at least in my mind, with the recent spectacle of Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House which raised the bar in terms of character-driven, haunted house horror. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison but I’d just finished watching this after diving into Janz’s audio book.

My other main criticism is that there is perhaps too much plot packed onto the confines of one novel. There are two main strands to the storyline. That of Judson Alexander and his family, and Cain’s estranged girlfriend and her suicide. Bringing these two strands together produces a cumbersome end to the novel and again gave a sense of the story overstaying its welcome a bit.

The narrator, Davis Brooks, does a grand job. He has has an undramatic but pleasing storytelling voice. Nothing jarred in terms of his depiction of the characters, whether male or female, and his interpretation kept me awake during a long 300 mile trip across England – so, thumbs up there.

Verdict: A suspenseful, character driven novel that, despite a burgeoning content in places, was entertaining to listen to and made me want to check out more of Jonathan Janz’s work.

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