I'm so behind on my ARC reviews, guys. Another by-product of the cold that won't quit. But I want to tell you about all this stuff, even if it's no longer in advance!
Seanan McGuire produces novellas at a thrilling rate, and I've been digging novellas lately. I got Final Girls by Mira Grant (McGuire's more horror-ish pen name) from Netgalley for review recently after reading and loving Every Heart a Doorway.
The premise is the real draw here, and I think it kind of stands in for my feelings about the whole book. Esther is a skeptical reporter who's doing an investigation of a new type of therapy. This therapy, invented by Dr. Jennifer Webb, involves a complete virtual reality simulation of a novel trauma experience--basically, you get into a VR tank and have a completely convincing experience of living through a horror movie. It seems like mostly the therapy is being used to heal very damaged personal relationships--by surviving a carefully controlled horrible experience, two sisters, or a father and son, or whoever, can get over long-term feelings of antipathy to have a positive relationship going forward.
This brings up a LOT of questions, but I'll get to that in a minute.
Esther is skeptical because the therapy is a little too reminiscent of repressed memory therapy, which of course has been thoroughly debunked, but not before it ruined her father's life.
More questions, but give me a second.
During a demonstration, there are complications, and there you have most of the plot.
So there are three central stories being told here. The two that comprise most of the book are the story of the illusion--Esther and Jennifer, growing up together and encountering evil--and the violent story playing out at the clinic that sends the inside story spiraling out of control. The framing story--Esther investigating this new therapy--might not even be worth counting as its own, but I actually found it one of the most interesting ones, especially from a worldbuilding perspective.
Because the new therapy was just meant to set up the story, but it raises SOOOOO many questions. I'm not even worried about the scientific issues, like the fact that they can control dreams with drugs or see what's going on in the dreams with monitors (though that at least gets a nod in the story). I'm talking about the viability of this business. Like, you have a fully immersive VR system--one in which the subject has no idea the experience is not real--and your go-to application is...this?
Actually, I guess I think therapy is a good first application here, but therapy specifically based around healing relationships by inducing a shared trauma experience just seems...unlikely. How many people have relationships in their lives that involve deep antipathy and a desire on both sides to get rid of that antipathy? And are those the people who are trying expensive, cutting edge therapeutic technologies? Are they really the ones who are being failed by talk therapy?
It just seems like a campy level of setup for an otherwise kind of serious story. Like, I would expect this to be the premise of a very cheap, B-grade horror story, the kind that winks at you with its own silliness. The kind that is a movie on Spike TV. (Though now that I think about it, they actually made this movie and it was anything but cheap.)
I also found Esther's conflation of this with recovered memory therapy to be kind of spurious. I mean, this is kind of the opposite--it's creating new, purposefully false memories. I could see a whole host of problems with it, but none of them are the ones Esther's looking for.
As horror novels go, it was engrossing and kept you wondering what would happen. I really did enjoy reading it. But what I walked away with were questions--so many questions, and not ones the story gave me a lead on.
Also, would you ever go into an immersive virtual reality experience? Would it make a difference if you would know inside the story that it wasn't real? I think my answer might be no, but I'd like to know yours.