#Halloween book review: Hide by Kiersten White

(courtesy Penguins Books Australia)

It’s a truism long observed that humanity is often the biggest monster at any given table.

No matter what the threat is or what destructive horror it might bring to bear, it always seems to be people who are the scary ingredients in any terror cocktail, whether it’s battling aliens, facing off zombie hordes or even dealing with a rogue giant shark, and Kiersten White, who admits in her acknowledgements that she is “not at all sorry that I keep writing things she [her agent] has to read with all the lights on”, runs with that observation to a fiendishly unnerving degree in Hide, which like its setting, is not at all what it first seems to be.

Ostensibly, Hide is about 14 young adults, with varying degrees of trauma seemingly sown deep into their DNA – it’s not a requirement for being selected but it seems to be something they unfortunately share in common – who are transported to the middle of American nowhere to compete for a prize of fifty thousand dollars.

All these reality show aspirants have to do, their motivations as divergent as their backgrounds and personalities, is be the last one standing after seven days, a feat they pull off by being the best hider in a hide-and-seek competition which sees two competitors eliminated every day.

So far, so Survivor or something and when their phones become useless thanks to no power and no wi-fi and they find themselves sealed off in a derelict amusement park, they simply its part of the NDA they signed and get on with the business of getting their hands on all that life-changing money.

Mack doesn’t care. She closes her eyes. She has to be ready, and physically is the only way she can prepare. Tomorrow she’ll be alone, hiding, with only her thoughts. And nothing will prepare her for that. (P. 44)

Naturally, it’s all too good to be true, and when people begin disappearing, leaving blood and scattered boots and jewellery in their wake, the more observant of the party, chief among them Mack, a young woman who knows the power, thanks to a traumatic blood-soaked past, of hiding to save a life and doom those without that skill, begin to realise something entirely evil is afoot.

The question then becomes, what is it they are trying to survive and who is behind a competition which is massively more sinister than it first lets on?

Where Hide succeeds brilliantly is in its ability to step up the reveals and the dread in deftly-delivered increments, with the novel never once unveiling more than it needs to at that point in the narrative to get the job done.

And get it done, it most certainly does, with a story that quickly moves from 14 strangers, weirdly bonded together and yet separated by the salient fact that only one of them can win, thinking they simply have to outwit the avaricious human nature of others to one where the enemy is a weird meld of human-enabled and supernaturally wrought.

To say any more than that would be to give this artfully and brilliantly scary game away, and that would be a shame because Hide is one of those rare books that rarely puts a foot wrong, unnerving readers as it reveals that the fact that there is more and more to be afraid of, while peeling back the raw, broken humanity of its central characters in a display of emotional resonance that gifts this scary tale a wholly accessible humanity too.

(courtesy Goodreads)

In fact, that’s likely the thing that hits home most powerfully in Hide; sure it’s haunting in ways that send ripples of dread across the skin and you begin to suspect that there’s far more going on than a competition with a big fat monetary prize, but it’s also a fiercely excoriating peeling back of what us human, of how our need to be feel secure and loved and worth something can lead us to take terrible risks and doing some despicable things.

Not that anyone would actually admit to that being the case.

We are, after all, the heroes of our own tale, and while many of the characters wrestle with their inner demons, only a few such as Mack, Ava and LeGrand are willing to admit those fatal flaws are buried deep in their psyche, with many of Hide‘s characters loathe to drop that inner sense of delusion that they are okay and that what they are doing is noble, good, right or even necessary.

Scary though the shadows, both actual and narrative might be, what’s really terrifying is now far people can lie to themselves and how oblivious to the damage they wreak they can be.

People pretend things aren’t wrong, even when they can feel the truth, because they’re too afraid of what it means to look right at the horror, right at the wrongness, to face the truth in all its terrible glory. Like little kids, playing hide-and-seek. If they can’t see the monster, it can’t get them. But it can. It always can. And while you aren’t looking, it’s eating everyone around you. (P. 163)

That is the scariest part of Hide in many ways.

There is a growing sense that monsters literally walk among us as this atmospherically intense novel progresses, but the real horror comes in when it becomes apparent that people might be the most monstrously callous and deluded beings of all.

It’s sobering and chilling but lest you think we are capable of no good, Hide also has a redemptive arc of sorts when Mack, desperate to atone for a situational lapse in judgement years earlier, realises that staying alone doesn’t work in life and it definitely doesn’t work in surviving whatever the hell it is she and her new friends have been dropped into.

It’s no waving of a magic wand that solves anyone’s problems, both immediate, which is to just live, and longer term, which is how to make life worth something, but the presence of the bonds that develop between several key characters and the way it impels to face the threat against them, shows that broken and broken though many people may be, that is not the whole story and never has been.

Hide knows what lurks within us, and understand that defeating it is often the key to overcoming the monstrous things that come against us, a sage lesson that finds startlingly moving evocation in a scarily full-on but broodingly nuanced story that never once pretends things are safe or easily dealt but which maintains dealt with they can be and asks of its characters to rise to the occasion and battle the demons within and without, even if there is no guarantee of what happens next.

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