It begins with a tap, then a creak, as the floorboards seem to sink down before us. Our insides start to bubble and heat. In the background we can hear Edgar Allan Poe recite his famous poem, “The Raven” — “[d]arkness there and nothing more,” over and over again. It does not help. We remember how it ends.
In “The Bird Eater” by gothic novelist Ania Ahlborn, readers are met with a similar shudder — a terrifying plot of unexplainable past horrors coming back for seconds. Within only a few pages, Ahlborn lures readers in as we omnisciently watch as to the fate of those below: in particular, the heartbreaking life of protagonist Aaron Holbrook.
Aaron never questioned the whereabouts of his mother, Miranda Holbrook. He had accepted long ago that his mother had instead chosen a life of shimmering stardom elsewhere. All things considered, Aaron was lucky to have his mother’s sister, his aunt Edie Holbrook, taking care of him. Edie, even after suffering great losses of her own, was a compassionate figure of maternal perfection. However, Edie was hiding something: the truth about Aaron’s mother, something Edie believed was too much for any little boy to bear.
However, readers soon learn that Miranda never left home for Hollywood. After battling mental illness for years, Miranda, more than a decade earlier, committed suicide in the very bathroom that Aaron used on a daily basis. Unfortunately, before the truth is revealed, darkness comes again. At 14-years-old, Aaron comes home from school to find Aunt Edie dead. Examination reveals that she suffered an accidental, but fatal, fall from the stairs.
Fast-forward 20 years later, Aaron’s life takes yet another turn for the worse when his son, Ryder, dies tragically in a car accident. As his marriage dissolves, his therapist advises him to return to the place his troubles first began — the now decaying Holbrook residence, or as locals call it, the “devil’s den.” It’s a place where one cannot scream out for help or reach the door, but rather a place where one is paralyzed by a fear they knew existed, but ignored:
“[S]cary creaks and snaps and whines were nothing but walls shrinking or expanding in night; suspicious scratching sounds were made by wind pushing branches against the clapboards; doors that swung open after they were closed were off-balance and needed adjusting. [G]hosts were fairy tales made up by people who were too empty-headed to think about things that made sense.”
When Aaron returns home, he finds that he is not alone. Alongside him are childhood friends who serve as supporting, albeit minor, characters who help Aaron through his dilemma. However, within his home lurks a much more sinister character — one who will test the truth from his perceived reality. In the end, the plot demonstrates that sometimes the only way to understand the past is to open the door to darkness.
‘The Bird Eater’ by Ania Ahlborn Rating: W W W V