Title: The Fear
Author: Spencer Hamilton
Release Date: August 11, 2020
Genre: Psychological horror, post-apocalyptic
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jacqueline (“Jack”) and Ashley move to Austin in order to start a new life together, away from their toxic families. But after Jack is attacked by a homophobe their first night in the city, she begins to see him everywhere, and Ashley is unable to tell if her wife's sightings of him are real or psychosomatic. Just as Jack is able to cope again, the coronavirus shutdown happens—and Ashley begins to see the attacker, too.
The main strength of this book is that it gives a very frank, warts-and-all depiction of trauma. Jack’s severe response to being brutally attacked while defending her wife doesn’t depict her as a saint, and it’s only with gradual steps forward that she’s able to get slightly better. The amount of disassociating, trouble focusing on work, and difficulty relating to her wife is absolutely realistic to her condition. In her more lucid moments, she also is able to realize that her response is hard on her wife, and feels guilt for not being able to do more, which creates a downward spiral, borne out of fear that Ashley will leave her.
These are all very familiar traps and patterns of someone suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and Ashley’s side, which is also common but taboo to speak of, is also realistic. Ashley helps Jack selflessly but stretches herself to a breaking point in order to do so, while also enabling Jack’s illness – getting her concrete help isn’t brought up until far after it’s a possibility. The combination of factors here leads to a nightmare situation in their apartment. The psychological horror of the mental prison they find themselves in is compelling, and I finished the book in one sitting due to wanting to know how much worse it could get.
As for weaknesses: I felt that the ending of the book was much stronger than the beginning – the pacing of the first few chapters is extremely slow, and the dialogue feels less genuine than it does by the end of the book. I think that, in trying to be sensitive and not fetishizing of a lesbian relationship, the author used phrases like “the hottest sex ever” to describe the two love scenes between Jack and Ashley, while later scenes are more graphic. It comes across as a little crass and borderline pornographic, and I think that a classic “fade to black” may have come across better.
There are also quotations from the news and political figures at the beginning of each chapter, and a throwaway line that criticizes an American political figure. While I also find the people and situations referenced absolutely atrocious, I think that these took away from the message of the book. The racism, homophobia, paranoia, and the absurd 1984-like situation that caused Jack and Ashley’s difficulties in the first place to speak for themselves about the political situation in the United States with coronavirus. Many of the chapter introductions felt unnecessary and distracting, rather than adding value and context to the story.
All in all, I felt this was a solid addition to the genre, as well as being interesting for its two sapphic lead characters and setting during the coronavirus pandemic. If not for its few issues, I would have rated it a 4.5, but there is solid talent on display within this work. I would recommend horror fans who like a bleak, claustrophobic feeling to their books, or especially those who like body horror, to give it a try, and I would gladly read subsequent works from Spencer Hamilton.
Content warnings: gore, trauma, sexual assault, physical abuse, homophobia, racism.
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.