Happy Halloween! Normally by now I’d have stocked up on bags of my favorite candies, hoping there would be a few fun-size bars left over after the last trick-or-treater had been served, but this year, the porch light will stay dark. (Currently, our plans call for watching “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” on Amazon Prime.)
In honor of the holiday, here’s a review of a very creepy book. Catherine House is the story of an elite college that gives its students a free education, but asks a lot of them in return: they must pledge to stay on campus for three years, with little to no contact with the outside world. (The novel is set in the mid-90s, perhaps because it seems inevitable that a few students would manage to sneak in their smartphones if it took place today.) They must also leave the past behind: no family photos, and you’re not even supposed to tell people where you’re from.
Catherine is “a tiny, pioneeering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds: prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States.” Many of the students who come to Catherine are hoping to study plasm, a wonder compound which has the potential to change the world.
The novel’s protagonist, Ines, is a troubled young woman who comes to Catherine in an effort to run away from some past transgressions which are never explained in detail, but seem to include a mysterious death in which she fears she could be implicated. A decadent bad girl who would rather drink, have sexual adventures and sleep late than attend classes, Ines stands in stark contrast to her roommate Baby, an anxious and hard-working student who desperately wants to get into the competitive new materials concentration so she can work with plasm.
Catherine House covers all three of Ines’ years at the school, and while she manages to improve academically, she becomes increasingly suspicious of what’s really going on in the locked lab where the plasm studies are being carried out, especially after she flips through some old scrapbooks hidden in the back of the library and makes a shocking discovery about a former student.
The languid, moody atmosphere of the novel reminded me a little of the film “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” another dreamlike and disquieting story. Are the students at Catherine House there to receive an education… or are they merely serving as subjects in a dangerously ambitious experiment?
To fully buy into this world, you need to get used to Elisabeth Thomas’ florid, gothic prose, which can be a little much at times. But by the time I finished the book, I appreciated the power of her world-building, drawing readers into Catherine’s eerie, claustrophobic world.