By Diane Hoh.
Salem University’s on-campus accommodation is pricey, so Jess is going to spend her freshman year living at Nightingale Hall – a creepy, six-bedroom co-ed dorm, nicknamed ‘Nightmare Hall’ by the college populace. On their first night, the residents are told that a student named Giselle committed suicide in their new home the previous semester. They’re naturally horrified, but no one more so than Jess, because it turns out she’s inherited the dead girl’s bedroom… the room she hung herself in.
Initially distracted by the chaos of freshers’ week, Jess soon becomes attuned to weird happenings at Nightmare Hall. It starts with their house mother being hospitalised after a fall down the stairs, leaving the six freshmen (plus handyman Trucker) to fend for themselves. Screams in the night; missing term papers; shredded clothes; mysterious footprints leading into Jess’s room and the discovery that one amongst them actually knew Giselle and kept it secret, leave the housemates on edge, afraid and distrustful of one another. Jess starts to wonder whether there’s more to Giselle’s ‘apparent suicide’ (as the coroner ruled it) than anyone realised. But as the strange occurrences take on a supernatural flavour, and turn increasingly violent, there’s a danger Jess won’t live long enough to solve the mystery.
The first in Diane Hoh’s Nightmare Hall series marks a definite departure from the standard Point Horror collection. We’re at university now, in more mature company. There’s no need to contrive our heroine’s isolation by having her parents out of town or working nights; Jess is in a dorm with six near-strangers, any of whom could be her antagonist. We’re launched into the horror at chapter one, with the grotesque discovery of a dead young girl, swinging by the neck from a light fitting. Diane Hoh often pushes the ‘pre-teen horror’ boundaries in her Point Horror entries, and gleefully ups the ante here, in what feels like an unleashing of her full, macabre imagination. Not that The Silent Scream is a complete departure from the tropes we know and love: the challenge of working out whodunit; the red herrings; the ‘pranks’ (though these are markedly more sinister than in a typical PH). But we’re on our guard – if Hoh is going to give us a dangling corpse on page one, who knows what else she has in store.
The scares come thick and fast, with the housemates subjected to one torment after another. The mystery is intriguing, with twists and turns aplenty; the finale is darkly satisfying. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Hoh also skilfully conveys what it’s like to arrive on campus, settle into a strange new home with other young people, start classes, make friends and experience the scalp-tingling sensation of independence that comes with starting university. The characters are well-drawn; their experiences realistic and interesting. There were times when I was enjoying reading about Jess’s new college branded sweater or the plans for the Fall Ball so much, I almost forgot about the dead girl haunting everyone because they mistook her murder for a suicide.
Entertaining from tits to teeth, and a highly auspicious start to the Nightmare Hall series.
Various fictional hangings have left their indelible mark on whatever bit of my brain conjures up nightmares. The Satan-worshipping nanny in The Omen, Daisy in Girl, Interrupted, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, even the Sanderson Sisters in Hocus Pocus, have all come back to haunt me in cold-sweated fantasies of thudding trap doors, plummeting bodies, twitchy feet, lolling tongues and taut ropes. I was not prepared for the gruesome depiction of a supposed suicide on the first page of The Silent Scream. It set a tone, it gripped me, and I’ll freely admit, it gave me the heebie jeebies.
It doesn’t matter that nothing that happens in the subsequent 200 pages is quite as scary as the discovery of Giselle’s body, or that we never get a clear account of what happened in her final moments. The atmosphere of threat and possibility has been established. There’s been a death – a nasty, violent, inexplicable one – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again.
In The Silent Scream, Diane Hoh serves up multi-faceted Point Horror, in which the brutally real actions of the killer occur alongside supernatural phenomena in a creepy house haunted by a murdered girl. Something for everyone, and a double-helping for those of us with broad tastes.