One of the reasons speculative fiction fans are always excited when a new Josh Malerman book is published is that he seems to reinvent himself with every new narrative. Malerman, best know from his bestselling novel Bird Box, explores genre limitations with every book, and A House at the Bottom of a Lake is no different. This could be called a coming-of-age narrative or a submerged haunted house novel, but those would only point so certain things Malerman brings to the table while leaving a lot out.
James and Amelia are both seventeen years old. They’re attracted to each other and awkward when they go on their first date together. They take a canoe and go into a lake, then a second lake, and eventually into a third lake they didn’t know about. Despite it being their first date, something happens in that last lake that brings them together in a powerful way: they discover a house at the bottom of the lake. However, when they investigate, they learn it’s not a normal house left there by flooding or the construction of a dam; it’s a perfectly preserved abode with everything a regular home would have still in place and untouched. And there might be something else in the house, something they can’t see. Obsessed with their discovery, James and Amelia spend more and more time using diving gear to explore the house and eventually find a way to even spend their nights near it. But obsessions are often bad, and the house—as well as whatever inhabits it—reciprocates the feeling. As the teens fall in love with each other, they also fall in love with the house, and the results aren’t what they expected.
Malerman is a master of the unsettling. A pristine house at the bottom of a body of water morphs into a somewhat static monster here that unveils itself slowly while simultaneously forcing the teenagers to see themselves. What they find is impossible, but we’re all attracted to the impossible, so readers quickly feel sympathy for the young couple. As the house plays games with their psyches and shows them things that are progressively stranger (the pool at the bottom of the lake is a favorite of mine), James and Amelia’s lives are altered in bizarre ways and their discovery becomes the center of their thoughts as well as a third party in their relationship:
These feelings warred and mingled within them both, as the water beneath experienced rotations of its own: pockets or warm, pockets of cold; pleasing water across their legs, their bellies, replaced, suddenly, by the icy tips of unseen fingers and the tips of tongues, tickling their bare skin from the deep, wanting perhaps to take hold of them, wanting to pull them deeper, deeper into the lake, deeper into the house, deeper in love, deeper…
A House at the Bottom of a Lake is a relatively short novel that feels even shorter thanks for Malerman’s superb pacing. Between dialogue, clean prose, and short chapters, this is the kind of strange, creepy novel that almost demands to be read in a single sitting. Amelia and James sound like young people caught in a maelstrom of emotions, curiosity, eagerness, and hormones, which makes them immediately likeable. Also, one of the most enjoyable elements of this narrative is that Malerman manages to make something almost still and placid slowly morph into a monstrous presence with invisible tentacles that reach above and beyond the confines of the lake. From the beginning of the novel, Malerman makes the physical structure and its existence a mystery that possesses an unseen force, and that makes it creepier:
Yet looking at it, the house, the shingles seemed to move uniformly, as if it wasn’t the surface of the water that created the illusion but something beneath the roof, rolling along its distance. Fish, perhaps. Or mice. As the roof sloped, its edges vanished into the murky shadows. Not only was Amelia unsure how large the house was, she wasn’t even sure how big the roof was. Those same shadows continued, merged with the darkness that was the rest of the lake.
A House at the Bottom of a Lake is a quick read that packs a truly eerie atmosphere and center around a relatively small microcosm with a few scenes outside of it. Malerman is already an established voice, but just like does with every new book, this one confirms that he’s not afraid to reinvent himself with every outing, and that makes him one of the best, most interesting voices in contemporary horror.
A House at the Bottom of a Lake
by Josh Malerman
Del Rey; 208 p.