Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: This Thing Between Us, by Gus Moreno

A horror novel about grief, loss, and a demon-possessed smart device.

This Thing Between Us

MCD x FSG Originals, 2021, 272 pages

A widower battles his grief, rage, and the mysterious evil inhabiting his home smart speaker, in this mesmerizing horror thriller from Gus Moreno.

It was Vera’s idea to buy the Itza. The “world’s most advanced smart speaker!” didn't interest Thiago, but Vera thought it would be a bit of fun for them amidst all the strange occurrences happening in the condo. It made things worse. The cold spots and scratching in the walls were weird enough, but peculiar packages started showing up at the house - who ordered industrial lye? Then, there was the eerie music at odd hours, Thiago waking up to Itza projecting light shows in an empty room.

It was funny and strange right up until Vera was killed, and Thiago’s world became unbearable. Pundits and politicians all looking to turn his wife’s death into a symbol for their own agendas. A barrage of texts from her well-meaning friends about letting go and moving on. Waking to the sound of Itza talking softly to someone in the living room...

The only thing left to do was get far away from Chicago. Away from everything and everyone. A secluded cabin in Colorado seemed like the perfect place to hole up with his crushing grief. But soon Thiago realizes there is no escape - not from his guilt, not from his simmering rage, and not from the evil hunting him, feeding on his grief, determined to make its way into this world.

A bold, original horror novel about grief, loneliness, and the oppressive intimacy of technology, This Thing Between Us marks the arrival of a spectacular new talent.

This Thing Between Us is literary horror. Moreno isn't just telling a straightforward ghost story, he's writing from the first-person perspective of a widower who is trying to cope with his wife's death, and then with the supernatural fuckery that follows. It's an intimate story of overwhelming grief and sorrow, soon joined by dread and horror. The author reveals in the afterward that it was partly a cathartic exercise to deal with his own loss: hopefully he was not also harassed by a demonic Alexa.

Thiago Alverez is an uneducated, working class schlub hustling for TaskRabbit. (The little dehumanizing intrusions of technology are a persistent element in this book.) The beautiful, ambitious, career-oriented Vera falls in love with him after he puts together some furniture for her, and much of this book is their love story, told in flashbacks made tragic because we know how it ends.

Moreno brings Thiago's and Vera's Mexican-American families into the story. Thiago's family is full of violence and bad endings. Vera's family doesn't really approve of Thiago: he's not good enough for their daughter, he's a "fake Mexican" who doesn't really speak Spanish. But as Vera's mother, Diane (who's pretty bad-ass and plays a significant part in the story) tells him, "She's old enough to live with her decisions."

Thiago and Vera move into a Los Angeles condo that seems strange from the beginning. Mysterious scratching behind the walls, cold spots, your basic weird but harmless haunted activity. Then Vera buys an "Itza," a voice-activated smart device, and the Itza starts acting weird and creepy, and by the time Thiago finally backs his truck over it, I would have put it in a trash compactor long ago.

Vera is killed in a tragic incident - a young hooligan running from the police shoves her in a subway platform, and she falls backwards, cracks her head, and dies. Besides dealing with the political and media fallout (the hooligan turns out to have been an illegal, and it's an election year), Thiago is now unwillingly rich because Vera bought a huge life insurance policy to make sure he'd be set up if something happened to her. Now Vera's family is offering condolences while holding their hands out, and Thiago just wants to get away. So he buys a remote cabin in Colorado.

This is where the horror really rockets into gear. The thing that possessed Thiago and Vera's condo, and their Itza, is not so easily left behind. It's also cleverly handled, as real-world, physical things happen, things that leave blood and bodies for the police to try to figure out, and with Thiago realizing that he's dealing with the supernatural, and that the cops aren't going to believe in demons even when presented with things that make no sense.

Thiago is both smart and not — he's smart enough not to stay in denial about what he's dealing with, but still so grief-stricken that sometimes he makes bad moves because he's obviously not thinking like the survivor in a horror movie. The nature of the threat is bizarre and creepy and doesn't neatly manifest itself as an easily definable entity. As Thiago puts it, it's pure evil. "Demon" is as good a word as any. The thing manifests physically but is also not a purely physical thing. It fucks with Thiago's head as well as trying to kill him — or is it really trying to kill him? Because it's pretty obvious that if that's all it wanted to do, it has plenty of chances to do so.

This was an excellent supernatural and psychological thriller, though I found the ending strange and confusing, waffling off into vaguely cosmic horror. But it was a compelling page-turner that manages to make a supernatural threat feel like something that could actually exist in a world that doesn't believe in the supernatural, and filled in all the details of a couple's mundane life and family backgrounds to color the tragedy that drives the rest of the story.

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